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John O’Neil: Combating leadership decay

The veteran leadership guru and educator John O’Neil on the need for CEOs to seek renewal and inner harmony on their corporate journeys.

One of the most influential business authors of the past 30 years, former venture capitalist and United States Air Force training instructor John O’Neil has become a top leadership voice in recent years, lecturing on the importance of constant learning and having a work–life balance.

He is President of the Center for Leadership Renewal, a strategic leadership development institute, sits on several finance and technology boards, and is a Ducere Global Leader Faculty Member. His most famous book,  The Paradox of Success, discusses ways for senior executives to stay hungry through reinvention and self-awareness, harnessing their unconscious mind to process negativity and become future-focused.


“Success depends entirely on how fast you can understand the future and grow into it,” he says. “If you don’t do that, I don’t care what business you’re in, obsolescence will catch you very fast. When is decay visiting us? Is it visiting our products? When did we kind of fail to stop growing and watch the decay happen? That decay is what kills companies.”

“It’s very dangerous for leaders to become messianic and go around making speeches about all kinds of things.”

O’Neil is also a proponent of authentic leadership rather than showboating.

“As a leader, you have to wear a shield, a little bit of a mask to avoid all the incoming criticism that could cause you harm. You’re very aware that you’re wearing that mask and you don’t wear it when you get home. You take it off,” he says.

“Many people fall in love with their mask. And it’s very dangerous for leaders to become messianic and go around making speeches about all kinds of things. Suddenly, overnight they become gurus and that’s highly, highly dangerous.”

Rethinking inspiration

Part of the issue can be that leaders think being inspiring is all about telling people what you think.

“It’s actually a whole different thing. Inspiration is what happens when people feel heard, not talked to,” he explains.

“If people who work with you understand that their ideas are highly valuable and you really want to know what they are, then half of your communication problem goes away because they’ll bring you criticism of the right kind. The leader who listens is really inspirational.”

“Inspiration is what happens when people feel heard, not talked to.”

And listening to your inner voice is just as important. O’Neil heads up the California School of Psychology and his book Seasons of Grace won the Nautilus Prize for Spirituality.

“When you start in a new position, you take the stress home with you, and infect your family if you’re not careful. It’s like a disease you carry around, so I try to help people spot that early and learn how to cope. We burn out a lot of young leaders and we don’t even notice.”

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