Christopher Gergen: Take ownership of your life

Successful leaders are “life entrepreneurs,” says Christopher Gergen, a founding partner of an entrepreneurial leadership development company. And life entrepreneurs? They don’t simply live a life; they lead a life.

Christopher Gergen gets a run or a bike ride in every day. Christopher GergenHe puts triathlons on his calendar to hold himself accountable to completing them. And after a long day in the office, he takes the time to play with his two children. All of those things, he said, are his daily renewal habits.

“They give me a much better sense of the broader perspective of life and what it’s all about,” he said.

The importance of these daily habits of renewal, Gergen said, was one of the surprising patterns that came out of interviews with 55 entrepreneurs for “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives,” a book he co-wrote with Gregg Vanourek. They’re the founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company.

“I hadn’t fully internalized this whole idea of renewal and the importance of it,” Gergen said. “And yet that came across very, very loudly and clearly -- that being a life entrepreneur is also about being able to stay fresh, avoid burnout and pick your head up by building in daily habits of renewal.”

Gergen’s entrepreneurship ventures include co-founding SMARTHINKING, an online tutoring provider, and establishing a café in Santiago, Chile, to promote the arts and music. His latest effort, Bull City Forward, aims to establish Durham, N.C., as a global model of economic development through social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Gergen spoke with Faith & Leadership about what it means to be a life entrepreneur, what role it plays in leadership and how to create vibrant, intentional communities. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What does it mean to be a life entrepreneur?

In terms of the book [“Life Entrepreneurs”] itself, what we were interested in addressing was how people have been able to go from very ordinary beginnings to creating pretty extraordinary outcomes, both for themselves and for the communities in which they live. Our hypothesis was that these were people who had taken a significant degree of ownership of their lives and were demonstrating a number of the traits you see in somebody who would be called an entrepreneur.

They have a sense of [who they are] -- what makes them tick, what their passions are, what their strengths are, what their values are and what their purpose is -- and they’ve done some really important work related to that. They have a sense of the opportunities on the horizon, and they’re able to translate that sense of possibility into a vision of where they want to go. They have a deep belief that the future is malleable and that the future is theirs to take. They live and embrace that, [in contrast to] people who are sort of fatalistic in their work.

Q: What comes after they have this vision of where they want to go?

This goes very much into the entrepreneurial mindset as well. It’s saying, “OK, I have a vision of where I want to go, and now I’m actually going to figure out how to get there.” They are smart on the execution side of it. They start thinking strategically about how to develop clear goals and how to translate those goals into reality.

After asking, “What are going to be my goals and my strategies to pull this off?” then it’s, “How do I create a support network around me?” Much like entrepreneurs have boards of directors, [life entrepreneurs] develop a healthy support network around them. We call this the “personal board of directors.”

Your personal board of directors should be defined by a deep sense of trust and authenticity. There should be a diversity of opinion and perspective so that when you’re faced with a difficult question or challenge, you have different perspectives from which to draw.

Also, reciprocity is important. Once I understand what your vision is, where you want to go and what your life dreams are, and once you know what mine are, how do we help each other get there?

Then -- and the most important thing -- is that life entrepreneurs are willing to go for it and to make a leap. Following the entrepreneurial life path is usually illogical, right? Because you’re usually going against the grain. Life entrepreneurs are people who don’t simply live a life; they lead a life.

Q: What’s the difference between leading a life and just living one?

The No. 1 thing that most people are scared of is the fear of failure. [But] when we asked people for the book what they were most scared of, their No. 1 fear was regret and not living a life that was as fulfilling, as deep, as meaningful and as purposeful as they possibly could. So there’s this sense of making that leap, taking action, being willing to fail, assuming a measure of risk along the way.

The other thing that’s really important is that it’s not about just themselves. It’s about this deeper belief in leaving the world a better place. It’s not about just serving in a traditional volunteer capacity; it’s the way you live life, the way you walk through life, the way you engage relationships in life. It all has a service quality to it.

Q: What did you learn from the interviews with the 55 entrepreneurs?

There were certain things we were surprised by. I hadn’t fully internalized this whole idea of renewal and the importance of it. And yet that came across very, very loudly and clearly -- that being a life entrepreneur is also about being able to stay fresh, avoid burnout and pick your head up by building in daily habits of renewal. It’s appreciating the small things and being able to take a deep breath and be quiet from time to time.

Almost everybody we talked to had some way of being able to stay connected to who they were, and they were connected to the bigger meanings and questions in life, whether that was through prayer, exercise, meditation or whatever it may have been.

And we sort of knew inherently the importance of relationships, but we heard it again and again. People who have been able to embark upon a life that is truly their own are surrounded by a strong support network.

Q: Is there a connection between being a successful leader and having the mindset of a life entrepreneur?

Yes. You certainly see some leaders that haven’t spent enough time on some of these deeper questions of reflection, and they are not entirely clear where their true north is. That type of leadership can be unsustainable.

You see time and time again leaders who have gone off track because they don’t have a clear sense of who they are and what they’re called to do and what their values are. As result of that, they will lead for the sake of leading rather than getting to the deeper question: “For what reason?”

I think there’s something to be said for bringing these two things [leadership and life entrepreneurship] together. I think that people who are able to be extraordinary leaders are people who know their true north. Bill George and Peter Sims wrote a terrific book about this called “True North,” which speaks to the fact that great leadership is often one that has a strong values foundation to it.

Q: You talked about having a personal board of directors. Taking that further, what role do networking, partnerships and collaboration play in this concept of life entrepreneurship?

I think it’s invaluable. It’s invaluable to have relationships that are able to open you to new ideas and opportunities, as well as being able to be very smart around resource allocation, for example. If you can work in collaboration with another organization or somebody else on your team, you can often benefit from sharing resources and increasing impact.

Another important attribute is that there’s an increasing amount of evidence that networks and shared learning breed innovation. One of my favorite books from last year is Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From.” He talks a lot about this idea of liquid networks -- that there are dynamic networks that you can’t always predict, but that’s where you get a lot of good breakthrough thinking.

That’s related to the work we’re trying to do around Bull City Forward. Intentional communities can be very powerful, especially if they’re cultivated the right kind of way, because it’s all about helping people make connections that are relatively unexpected but lead to incredible breakthrough thinking.

Q: How do you cultivate vibrant ecosystems or intentional communities?

The way I have likened my work over the years -- in terms of my own entrepreneurial path and the work I’ve done to try to inspire people to be entrepreneurs -- is this idea that we’re creating all these healthy seeds. If you plant them in dry soil, for example, they’re either going to blow away somewhere else, perhaps to more fertile ground, or they’re not going to reach their full potential and their growth will be stunted.

What we have begun to question is how do we create this fertile garden? How do we make sure these seeds have a terrific place to be planted? And how do we harvest this garden and grow these ideas?

In Durham, we’ve got a hotbed of all these terrific, bright and creative people. But they typically worked on their own and weren’t being connected to other networks, or they were haphazard and accidental in the way that was going. We thought, “If we were able to create this ecosystem of change-makers and make Durham a place where great ideas that could change the world thrived, how would we do that?”

We determined there were basically four things we needed to do. The first is to be intentional about the pipeline itself. How do we make sure that we have a lot of good ideas in this soil? That requires building a pipeline of innovators.

Once we have that strong concentration of entrepreneurs, how do we also have a smart, enabling environment to be able to help these entrepreneurs and change-makers grow to scale? That’s the gardening part of what we’re doing.

A big piece of that is making sure entrepreneurs are connected to one another, because that’s where the real strength in the community lies. We believe that of anything we do, what we need to do right is the dot-connecting piece of it. As soon as somebody comes into our community, we want to be able to sit down with them and say, “What are your goals? Where do you want to go? What are you focused on? What do you care about?” And then, through that conversation, we’re able to say, “OK, you should talk to these four or five people who are aligned with your values and are doing some things in your field that you should be thinking about.” Usually, some type of partnership begins to unfold from there. We also have a space in downtown [Durham] where people can connect with one another, work out of and hold meetings.

The third piece is measure. How do we actually measure the impact we’re having? How do we prove that this is lending itself to contributing to the top line and bottom line of the city’s economy? And what kind of impact is this collective network having on our community in terms of social change?

The final piece is that we advocate on the community’s behalf at the local, state and national levels, because there are certain public policies that can be changed and created to help catalyze this community. How do we make sure that dollars are being invested in ways that benefit our economy and environment and are thoughtfully invested?