The exhausted leader

Aug 17, 2011

Many leaders – be they Visionaries, Operators or Processors – have spent the last three years strategizing, motivating, cajoling, mentoring and role-modeling (in short, leading) against a backdrop of slumping markets and squeezed, if not absent, profits.Most leaders came into 2011 with a sense, however inchoate, that this would be the year when we could at last return to something approximating ‘normal’. Instead, we got this:

How it's going to be

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(You can read more about where this graph comes from here and here.)

This changed scenario – from a slow recovery in 2011 to an even slower one extending into 2014 or so, has not surprisingly left many leaders exhausted, wondering if they have the mental, physical and emotional stamina to haul themselves up and lead the charge one more time. Since mid-May, I have noticed more vacant stares, unfinished sentences and general tiredness in the leaders I work with that at any other time in my 35-year career.

If you find yourself in that situation, here are a few suggestions:h2>1. Stop.

You don’t have to keep doing this.

Deciding to opt out of something you didn’t sign up for in the first place is no shame, no admission of defeat. It is what it is: the rules have changed, and you weren’t the one that changed them – you have the right (and, if where you find yourself now is damaging your health and/or relationships, probably the duty) to go do something else, however disruptive or painful that decision may be.

2. Pause.

There’s a limit to how many marathons one person can run sequentially without a break – however fit they may be, however much training they’ve put in, however called they may feel to do it.

Have you thought about a sabbatical – at least from your leadership role, if not from your job as a whole?

I know this is easier for me to type than it is for you to do, but let’s face it, people do it all the time, and for all sorts of reasons – illness, mid-life crisis, company policy, an irrepressible desire to live in Peru. Find a way to take six months off. If you decide that’s what’s right for you, you can do it.

3. Rewind.

When was the last time you were truly energized in your leadership role – happy, full of great ideas, above all, regularly successful in achieving your leadership goals?

What can you do to get back there? Downsize your business? Take a different position? Move to another organization? Start something new?

4. Fast-forward.

Where did you hope you would be, as a leader, by now? What was your vision for yourself in 2011 back in say, 2008?

What can you do, where can you go, to get that? Merge your business with another? Look for a different role elsewhere? Restructure the environment you’re currently in to look more like you imagined it would be? Stop doing things you didn’t think you’d still be doing now? Start doing the things you believed you would?

Again, easy questions to ask, and hard to answer – but as an old mentor of mine used to say, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

5. Press ‘play’.

If you’re an exhausted leader, maybe you’ve read through each of the options above and one of them has gripped you – and as a result, maybe you’re about to make a life- or career-altering decision.

Maybe you’ve read through each of the options above and you know that none of them are for you – that you’re going to take a deep breath and press ‘play’, and get back in the (same) game.

That’s equally fine – so long as it is a considered choice.

I don’t mean this last point as some lame aunt sally – it’s not as if the other options are a test to see if you are a ‘real leader’ (in fact, it’s a sign of true leadership to have the personal awareness and cojones to press ‘stop’, ‘pause’. ‘rewind’ or ‘fast-forward’). I mean it no more or no less than as a co-equal option. Even though you’re tired and exhausted, after review, you might decide to gather your strength and carry on. Or not.

Your choice – but please, do make it a choice.

Next up: The bankrupt leader.