When I ask leaders, "How do you define success?" I often get asked, "Are you referring to my professional life, personal life or for this organization?"

I often respond asking by this rhetorical question, "How many lives do you have?" Then I let them ponder my question for a few moments.

Before they have time to respond, I state, "As far as I know, you only have one life. There are no separate personal and professional lives. Executives do not live some kind of disjointed, separate, bipolar or tripolar lives. There is only life. You cannot separate your personal, professional or organization lives. You only have one life."

If and when they do respond, I find executives' definitions of success run a gamut from the tactical to the conceptual. Tactical examples would include doubling sales, completing a merger, completing a lifelong pet project, or designing and patenting that next new widget. Conceptual examples are often defined by telling a story or describing their ideal self or moment in time.

Whether you define success in either tactical or conceptual terms, the above narratives and self-concepts serve only as motivational goalposts, helping people prioritize their decisions and activities, but they often still do not define real success.

Many leaders simply really have not thought deeply enough about what their personal success really looks like. They just go one day at a time, swinging for the fences. I ask them, "When you are leading a major project, don't you determine early on what a success should look like?"

The same principle applies to leading a deliberate life: You have to define what success means to you. If you have not done this, you need to take time to sit down and write out what success means to you in your life. Write it down.

Truly successful leaders vigilantly manage their own human capital focusing on what success means to them. These leaders make deliberate choices about which opportunities they'll pursue and which they'll decline. They seldom simply react to emergencies or what just comes to their door next.

Of course, making deliberate choices doesn't always guarantee success. Life sometimes takes over, whether it's a parent's dementia or a teenager's car accident. But many executives have sustained their momentum during such times by making deliberate choices based on their vision of personal success.

Now, how do you define success?