The Two Drives Model and Leadership

Leadership  Learning
13 January, 2015

Both positive and negative forces battle for mastery within each of us. Whose side are you on?

I am very pleased that Shailesh Deshpande, who leads Learning and Development for GILAC, has written this week’s piece. Shailesh, as you know, conducts the highly regarded Leading Self and Leading Others workshops.

A few weeks back, most of the members of the GCPL senior leadership team attended Shailesh’s Leading Self workshop. While there were many topics that we found very valuable, the Two Drives model was particularly fascinating. So, I have asked Shailesh to elaborate on how this model can help us become more effective leaders.

Please read on…

What is the best that I can be? And how do I get there? 

These are probably among the toughest questions that you can ask yourself. But it is in the translation – of making this idea of becoming the best a reality, where we really struggle. There are external and internal challenges that inhibit us. These include the lack of a supportive environment, limited self-awareness or inability to move out of our comfort zone, among others. For many of us, the exploration ends here.

Study the lives of great achievers, from Abraham Lincoln to Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi to Sachin Tendulkar, and you will realise that they too have faced similar and often, much tougher challenges, than you and I. But that didn’t stop them from finding a way to become their best.

And it doesn’t always have to be famed, celebrity greats, who manage this. Think hard enough and I am sure you will find examples of people who you know personally, who have managed to accomplish this.

In our moments of honesty and true introspection, we understand that our many reasons for not being able to become our best, are just excuses. The truth is that we are probably not making adequate efforts to translate our potential into reality.

This is a strange paradox – we know that we can create a much better life for ourselves; we even want to do that, but we struggle to start and sustain this journey.

The Two Drives model is a good starting point to understand this paradox. Simply put, all human beings are governed by two inherent and integral drives:

  1. Life Drive: A force that pushes us in the direction of personal growth and makes us approach other people and the world around us in an optimistic, respectful manner
  1. Death Drive: A force that pushes us in the direction of self-limitation and makes us approach other people and the world around us in a suspicious and hateful manner

The kind of people we end up being and how our lives pan out, is determined by the constant, dynamic battle between these two forces; how we control our Death Drive and nurture our Life Drive.

This is easier said than done. Unfortunately, our ‘default drive’ is the Death Drive and unless we are watchful and make conscious efforts to manage it, this can gradually take hold of our lives. This is worrying because the only purpose of the Death Drive is to prevent us from living out our full potential. What makes the Death Drive even more dangerous is the fact that it is a ‘silent killer’. It uses very effective and almost invisible traps – cynicism, procrastination, inferiority or superiority complexes – to influence our actions.

So, how can the Two Drives model help us become more effective leaders?

Leadership is not just about delivering exceptional results; it is a much deeper and longer-term commitment to your team members and organisation. In many ways, it is almost a special personal growth journey – one that is far more demanding and difficult, because by definition, a leader accepts responsibility not just for his or her own growth, but also the growth of all team members and the organisation as a whole.

There is a big difference between designations and leadership. It is possible to acquire designations by delivering results or by cleverly managing the environment. But becoming a true leader, who always strives to do the right things for your people as well as your organisation – that is completely different. And this is this kind of leadership that we want to foster at Godrej.

A leadership journey is one of introspection and so, here are three questions which you should ask yourself:

1. What standards have you have set for yourself?

Do you truly strive to become the best leader that you can be? This would mean setting exceptional goals, working on building a robust organisation and inspiring your team members by creating a great culture. It is possible to focus on short-term measures and appear successful over a limited time span of a couple of years. But true leadership plays out over a much longer timeframe.

If you are unable to clearly identify the efforts that you are making towards your leadership goals, then this probably calls for introspection. Your Death Drive will certainly try and dissuade you – “This is too idealistic of a way to think about leadership. There is no point in talking about inspiration. All that people care for is a comfortable work environment and money”. If you catch yourself in these or any similar thoughts, then remember this – not only will this approach significantly hamper your leadership journey, but it is also likely to make you a lesser human being than one that you are capable of becoming.

Here are a few indicators that you may not have set very high standards for yourself:

  • You put far more effort into ensuring that the right people think you are doing good work, than in actually doing great work
  • You often think about the success of your function, sometimes even at the cost of the larger organisation
  • You have team members who are very political or not very good people leaders, but you avoid difficult conversations with them. Rather than giving them feedback and helping them improve, because they deliver good short term results, you simply ignore the issues at hand
  • You often choose what is convenient over what is right. For example, you may avoid entering into a conflict that may be painful, but necessary for the long-term well being of the organisation

2. How thoroughly and honestly do you assess yourself against the standards you have set?

Let’s assume that you have indeed have set very high standards for yourself. The question then is – Are you able to accurately assess how you are faring against these standards? Here again, you need to watch out for signs of your Death Drive:

  • Time crunch: As senior leaders, we get used to living packed lives. If we are not disciplined, we will almost find it impossible to take a pause and reflect deeply about what we are doing and how we are feeling. There is no set formula for this and you will need to find a solution that works best for you. Bill Gates for example, is known to earmark two weeks every year as ‘think weeks’, dedicated to thinking about future and reflecting on the past
  • Power blind: We may not realise it, but we often have a lot of power over our teams. That power can easily corrupt us, if we are not watchful of it. Think about it. Some of us behave very differently with our seniors as compared to our team members. A simple test – If you miss a call from your team member, do you make it a point to send a text or call back later? What if the missed call was from your boss? Because the people who we lead tend to make a lot of efforts to win us over, it is not always very easy to find out how they truly feel about us. I am sure we can all think of leaders we have known, who though they were truly inspiring leaders, had teams who really were scared of or actually disliked them. How do you know that you are not such a leader?

3. After identifying the gaps, how effectively do you work on improving your leadership game?

This is where the rubber really hits the road. Let’s say that you have set very high standards for yourself and have even honestly assessed yourself against them to identify areas of improvement. Now ask yourself – year on year, how hard do you think you have worked on this?

Here again, your Death Drive could make progress very difficult and this is what you need to watch out for:

  • Struggle to improve blind spots: Almost all leaders have a few towering strengths. These are our most productive patterns; that define us. And while it is absolutely important that we continue to nurture them to even higher levels, as leaders we don’t have the luxury of ignoring our blind spots
  • Enlightened self-care: Great leaders understand that leadership is about using yourself in the best possible way as an instrument to serve your mission. They understand that this ultimately leads to their own success and well-being. When egos come into play, leaders start putting themselves ahead of their mission or organisation. This lack of humility hampers learning. The other extreme can be equally dangerous, when leaders get so caught up in work that they start neglecting themselves.

So, do set aside some time this week to introspect and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What standards have you have set for yourself?
  2. How thoroughly and honestly do you assess yourself against the standards you have set?
  3. After identifying the gaps, how effectively are you working on improving your leadership game?

It is very important that you take this time to invest in and develop yourself, because in order to become the best leaders we can be, we first need to ensure that we are at our personal best – whether physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. As leaders, if we can try to let go of our death drives, then we can transform ourselves and our organization into something far beyond what we can even imagine.

Please feel free to reach out to me to share your experiences and thoughts. And a big thanks to Shailesh for the wonderful work he is doing (if you have not attended his workshops, I highly encourage you to do so).


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