Many in senior leadership positions reach a point of “crisis of purpose or meaning” where the values and intentions that were so obvious and explicit to them in their earlier careers have become lost and obscured by the sheer volume of the day to day “stuff” that they are now trying to cope with. This can not only make the “compass” by which they navigate less available to them but it can leave them with a sense of hollowness or immense lack of satisfaction, despite their achievements. This in turn will begin to threaten their effectiveness and performance and can lead to their “re-doubling” efforts to maintain their levels of achievement. Of course this eventually leads to a degree of “burn out” where even if levels are maintained it’s at a cost – sometimes their health or emotional well being; sometimes their family and friends are neglected and relationships fail; sometimes those who work for or with them feel the brunt of their stress; sometimes they feel that an escape is the only answer. In all cases operating in this mode is not sustainable for themselves or for those they lead.
Much of my work with senior leaders often involves this conversation. How can they re-connect to their purpose in a way they provides clarity, intention, drive (without consuming themselves) and enables them to be in relationship with their leadership which is sustaining and sustainable? Asking the question “what do you really care about?” in one form or another can often produce a shock as realisation that either they have “forgotten” or cannot now identify anything or that they CAN remember but they realise they see little of it in their day to day work. This moment of shock is an opening, a doorway back into what they care about. It may be a re-kindling of past purpose or it may be a new exploration to discover what it is in their current lives (work domain and beyond) that provides them with a true sense of purpose and meaning. Helping to identify this can be the beginnings of a renewal that builds energy and drive through purpose that allows them (paradoxically) to let go of the need to “do everything” (to exhaustion) and to see more clearly those things that only they can do – and thus where they need to deploy their efforts and skills (finding ways to delegate or let go of the rest).
Of course the “personal” is only part of the story. There is a systemic pressure on individuals who inhabit the “organisational space” of leader. This space is one of complexity and overwhelm if specific strategies are not in place to prevent this. The reflex response of those “at the top” is to “suck it up” and thus add to their burden and overwhelm, even as they believe they are helping others and doing their job. For more on this see the work of Barry Oshry (Power and Systems). So I also get them – individually and collectively, when working with a senior team – to experience and explore the various organisational spaces, including that of “Leader” (Tops in Oshry terms). In doing so they gain a new insight into the systemic pressures they are subject to and thus can see better what THEY are responsible for and what the SPACE itself is responsible for. With this new insight we can begin to build strategies to enable their leadership to become both more effective and sustainable.
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