Author Talks: How to connect inner self with outer success

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Tiffany Vogel chats with Hitendra Wadhwa, professor at Columbia Business School, about his new book, Inner Mastery, Outer Impact: How Your Five Core Energies Hold the Key to Success (Hachette Book Group, June 2022). Inspired by his experiences teaching and his research on leadership at the Mentora Institute, Wadhwa explains how forming a dual connection with the inner core and outer world can lead to enduring success. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What inspired you to write this book and why now?

The book is Inner Mastery, Outer Impact: How Your Five Core Energies Hold the Key to Success. I’ve had a deep hunger in my life for success, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

I got compelled to do this work, which has now been 15 years in the making, through my teachings at Columbia and the work that we do at the Mentora Institute. I struggled with this dichotomy: on the one hand, I wanted the acclaim, applause, and approval of the world, whether it’s from family, society, or the organization I work for and beyond.

On the other hand, I wanted that same sense of applause from myself. I wanted to be true to myself and to my own inklings and stirrings from within. I call that inner success, versus outer success. The book seeks to offer a provocative thesis that these two don’t have to be in conflict at all.

When you approach them the right way, the inner and the outer, you come to this beautiful point of confluence where all of your life—the inner, the outer, the private, the public, the professional, and the personal—seems to emerge out of this central construct of my work, which is this notion of inner core.

Can you explain the concept of the ‘inner core’?

I initially started to teach something at Columbia that I call personal leadership. The idea was that before you learn to inspire, influence, and change others and turn people around in moments of adversity, how about you learn to inspire and influence yourself?

How about you turn your own life around in the face of adversity and change yourself? That was the main idea of the class.

In my early conversations with students, most were saying the same thing: “Professor, I’m finding it so helpful that you are guiding me toward my core.” I went, “Wait a second, this is not your core—these are broad principles,” but as the class evolved, my research evolved, and my own personal journey evolved, I realized how right the students were.

They say that one teaches to learn, and that’s what it’s certainly been like for me. What emerged is this idea that within each of us lies the very essence of our spirit—our inner core. That’s a space from where our highest potential arises. When we are at that place, we are beyond ego, attachments, and insecurities.

Before you learn to inspire, influence, and change others and turn people around in moments of adversity, how about you learn to inspire and influence yourself?

I didn’t want the book and my work only to be focused on the inner if it wasn’t also going to inform and guide us on the outer. I have studied many historical figures who are iconic and luminous in many ways and have left footprints in the sands of time, like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Abraham Lincoln. What you find from the science and the studies of these iconic figures is that they did their best outer work when they did their best inner work.

We play our best outer game when we learn to play our best inner game. When we make it a habit, a commitment, and a discipline to be anchoring our core, we are free from impulses, habits, and in-the-moment surges of emotions and the limiting confines of a mindset or belief that is, in some ways, self-defeating.

We can be liberated from that. We can transcend that to see the truth in situations in a fuller light—to be able to choose our response with conscious awareness and a deep commitment to our purpose.

In doing that, we can also be deeply connected to the life around us, with nature, and with the people we are working with and serving. We have a dual connection: deeply with our own core and, at the same time, with the nuances of the world around us.

To me, that’s the secret to enduring success in life.

What gets in the way of achieving both inner core and outer mastery, and how can we dissolve the boundaries between each?

Two hundred years ago, only 15 percent of the world was literate, whereas today 85 percent is literate. Say you go back 200 years and ask that 15 percent of people, “Why is the rest of the world not literate? Why are you so privileged and they’re not?”

Do we think they would have said, “It’s because we got lucky. We’re the aristocrats. We have the opportunity to get access to this education, and they don’t”? Most likely, they would’ve said, “We’re a selective group of people with very special genes.” However, we all know that that’s not true at all.

It’s completely innate in the human condition to ultimately be literate under the right conditions. It was always there. In the same way, purity, commitment, calmness, and centeredness are innate in all of us at our core, but perhaps we haven’t fully awoken to it—we haven’t cultivated the pathways to getting there.

On the one hand, we have progressed in such beautiful ways over the past few hundred years, from a much more constricted world, a conformist-oriented world, to one where we have struggled for and won the freedom to feel, think, express, and consume whatever it is that we wanted.

In that lay our salvation, we thought; in that lay the pursuit of our authentic selves, but instead, where do we find ourselves? We are at a point where society is hardly united. It’s so divided in so many ways. In the pursuit of freedom, what we have not realized is that if we want to be true to ourselves, we first have to discover what our true self is. What is our self?

It’s completely innate in the human condition to ultimately be literate under the right conditions. It was always there. In the same way, purity, commitment, calmness, and centeredness are innate in all of us at our core, but perhaps we haven’t fully awoken to it.

Within me, there are many selves. When I realized I had all these competing selves, my first responsibility was to discover which one was my true self. Once I anchored in that self, only then had I earned the right to freely flow with my thoughts, feelings, and impulses.

Once our world opens itself up to the fact that freedom is a beautiful thing, that untethering ourselves from conformist ideals is a very beautiful thing, we realize that those rights come with the responsibility to discover our true voice—our true self within. Then we can pursue step-by-step disciplines through which we harmonize our thoughts, feelings, impulses, and values so that they’re all in service of the expression of our core in everything we do.

How does selflessness benefit oneself?

There is no such thing as a self-made woman or man. There is interdependency; there are interconnections between us and the rest of the universe, such as the community and the people around us.

At every level of nature—from the cellular level to organs in the body to planets in the solar system—there is an interchange going on. Each helps to support the overall stability of the system, and this system then makes each individual element reach their highest unique potential.

In my body, for example, my heart, my lungs, and my brain are selflessly doing their part of the work. What if they ever started to feel a little egotistical?

There is no such thing as a self-made woman or man. There is interdependency; there are interconnections between us and the rest of the universe, the community, and the people around us.

The heart might say, “Wait a second, why am I pumping all this blood to you guys? Anoint me in a position of power and put me on the throne and reward me.” The lungs would say, “Oh yeah? Then I’m going to stop bringing in oxygen.” The brain might say something like, “What if I just stop giving intelligent instructions to the rest of the body?”

What would we want to tell each of these organs? Wouldn’t we want to say, “selflessly give and be deeply connected; yes, protect your own interests by taking in some of the blood and some of the oxygen to nourish yourself, but there’s enough here for all of us”?

When we give and take a little bit and tune into others’ needs in selfless service, we become the best versions of ourselves. When you face the dichotomy between the inner and the outer in a struggle or at a tension point, realize that there may be a message there about what kind of patience or grace you may need to show in that conversation, relationship, or struggle you’re having.

What strategies can leaders adopt to activate their and their employees’ inner cores?

My book is about life, but in many ways, it’s about leadership. It’s about showing up in life with that quest to bring out the best in yourself and bring out the best in others in all situations. That’s what we seek and expect from our leaders and organizations, but it’s something that any of us can take on in any of our pursuits.

Just think about one thing, which is to bring out the best in others and the best in yourself in pursuit of a common positive purpose, whatever it is. That purpose could be about getting to a great outcome in a meeting, it could be about launching a product the right way, or it could be about advancing the organization’s cause more broadly over time.

Whatever the common positive purpose is, how can you bring out the best in others and the best in yourself, which means activating them at their core and activating yourself at your core?

From studying exemplary leaders and moments of exemplary leadership from unsung people, I’ve discovered that these leaders were pursuing a very simple, personal path. It involved them being very sensitive about expressing these energies. They wanted to make sure there was purpose, love, and wisdom in their conversations. To do that, they would pick from a handful of actions.

For example, if love was being compromised because the feeling of want in the relationship was sidelined by conflict and different points of view, the people in the relationship might infuse that moment with affiliation: finding some common ground between them. They may say, “We’ve been in this together for the last two years. Do you remember that time when you did this and I did that?” That’s a way of bringing in affiliation.

We can open our organizations up to learning simple actions like these that are chosen personally by leaders moment by moment, based on what they sense is most needed.

How can someone tap into their inner core, wherever they are?

Pay heed to your inner experience. What are the moments and practices and who are the people who make you feel most connected with the peace, joy, love, and wisdom that exist at the very core of your being?

Perhaps it’s a walk in nature. Perhaps it’s a moment where you feel rested and refreshed after a shower. Perhaps it’s when you feel inspired in a team that is collectively pursuing a cause that you deeply believe in. Pay attention to that stirring within that makes you feel really inspired. Feel it at the core of your being.

Now, ask yourself, “How can I create this state on demand in the middle of my daily battlefield—even amid defeat or struggle?” You can pause. You can close your eyes. You can reactivate that stirring from within and seek to reenter the fray of life from that state.

What are the moments and practices and who are the people who make you feel most connected with the peace, joy, love, and wisdom that exist at the very core of your being?

Although you may claim to have only gotten it when you were taking that walk in nature, or when you were interacting with that individual, or reading that inspiring passage in a book, that’s not true. Those things are purely catalysts from the outside. That state always exists in you from the inside—my encouragement is to find that one action that seems to consistently take you there.

Make that action something that you can visualize in any moment where you feel the need to recenter. Take the responsibility to get yourself recentered. Recognize and monitor when you are not anywhere close to your core. If that happens, it’s not yet the right time for you to open the computer and go into the virtual meeting or walk into that conversation.

Any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

We’re living in a complicated time today. It’s very hard to always make the right choice. Sometimes, we may be able to lean on science. Sometimes, we may be able to lean on experience. Sometimes, we may be able to lean on faith.

From my studies of great leaders from history, I would offer you the one resource that never failed them: their own inner voice. That is my one offering to you in exultation—let’s all learn to cultivate an attunement with our inner voice.

That is where the universe is ultimately whispering its secrets to us. It’s not an entitlement. It’s not something that you simply feel like doing—that is not your inner voice. Our inner voice emerges when we create silence from the outside so our inner voice can break its silence. As Lincoln once said, “I want to conduct the affairs of the world so that at the end of the day, even if I have no other friend left on Earth, I have at least that one friend deep down inside of me.”

I would say in the complicated times we live in today, that’s my ultimate service and guidance for all of us, which is at the center of the book as well: your core speaks to you. Your core can guide you if you allow it to.

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