12 Steps of Starting a New Year, Part 1: Lessons From a Business Leader With 25 Years of Sobriety

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The start of the new year is packed with new goals for business leaders. 

As a business leader, every holiday season and its aftermath (the first month of the new year), I reflect on a particular part of my past and how it’s influenced my personal and professional life. 

I live a life of recovery from alcoholism, having been sober for 25 years. 

In the early days of my recovery, I frequently attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Nowadays, I still occasionally attend online AA meetings. But the lessons I learned from the 12 steps all those years ago, I carry with me every day, especially during the course of running my business. I think every business leader can benefit from those lessons, even if they haven’t been, or aren’t, in recovery for alcoholism. 

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To me, the 12 steps are about life transformations, not new year’s resolutions. For the first part of this series, I’m focusing on the first six steps. I’ve pulled the steps below directly from the AA website; the business lessons are mine. Note: Although some of these steps reference God, you don’t have to interpret them from a religious lens. If you are religious, then by all means, please use the lens of the faith you believe in! 

Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

As business leaders and employers, it’s important to acknowledge when we’re struggling. Think back to a business challenge you faced last year — perhaps the balance sheet didn’t look good, or that new product line didn’t work out. And to start solving that challenge, you first had to admit there was a problem. 

That’s what this step is about. Whatever the issue is, only by admitting it to ourselves and to those around us can we begin to turn things around. 

Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Chances are, you don’t run your business completely on your own. You likely have employees or at least outsource some tasks on occasion. 

What this step comes down to is that there is help and that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. If you’re facing a business challenge, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are experts who can step in and give you guidance, and your issue might get resolved way faster than if you’d tried to handle it yourself. 

Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

We don’t have control over everything. As business leaders, our expectations that we can control everything are the root of many of our problems. 

Instead, we should surrender to the truth that the only thing we do have control over is our own behavior — and that there is something greater than us — be it a person, goal, God, etc. — that can help us with this. For example, you can’t ultimately have total control over exactly how many people will buy your product in a given quarter, but what you can do is work with your team to create a sales and marketing strategy that will really speak to potential customers. 

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Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

In step four, we’re called to sit down and learn who we really are in the world. Ask yourself questions like, “What damage have I caused through the course of running my business and in my personal life?” and “What do I need to make amends for?”

Then, write down the answers to those questions to understand who you are and who you want to be. Perhaps you realize that you need to apologize to an employee for the tone you used with them one day or that your business practices are harming the environment. Only by being honest with yourself can you start to improve. 

Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Once you have the list you worked on in step four, take it and read it aloud — to yourself, another human being, or, if you’re religious, to God. 

This step is about accountability for your business practices and what you’ve done beyond your business, because what good is your list if you keep it hidden in your drawer? If you never read the list aloud in step five, step four is only partially realized.

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Okay, a personal disclaimer about this step: I don’t believe God can remove character defects. However, what I do believe is that I can find peace via steps four and five. By taking an inventory of myself as a business owner and as a person, admitting my shortcomings, being accountable to someone or something beyond myself and then working on transforming myself — that’s how I can remove my character defects. 

So, the more work you’ve done in steps four and five, the more you’ll be ready to turn around your character defects in step six. And if you think those character defects only pertain to your professional life, reconsider. Who we are at home shapes who we are at the office and change has to start on a personal level

Reaching step six is the halfway point — but to fully transform as business leaders and individuals, we need to work on the remaining six steps as well, which I’ll explore in the second (and final) part of this series. 

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