Carrying the Burden of Leading Others and the Danger of Hubris

Excerpt from “The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance,” by Bill Treasurer and Captain John R. Havlik.

To be a leader means to get results. Getting results is a fundamental leadership pressure point, and it requires keeping everyone working productively. It’s a simple equation: The more productive people are, the better the results will be. And producing results, as a leader, is what you’re most responsible for. Your effectiveness as a leader will be judged on the magnitude and longevity of the results you get. Period. 

The pressure to get results is incessant, and the strength of the results frequently impacts a leader’s mood and behavior. When you’re in a leadership role, the drive for results can end up driving you. You’ve got to do better. You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to push others to do better and produce more. The engine of leadership revs to the tune of more, more, more! More sales, more revenue, more profit, more output, more growth. Always and forever!

Leading is more fun when results are strong and robust, so many leaders make chasing results the primary focus, the leadership sine qua non. The more a leader produces, the more satisfying the leadership experience is, and the more insatiable the leader’s appetite grows for getting even more, more.

When a leader’s vision becomes narrowly fixated on results, the ends can start to eclipse the means in importance, and the leader becomes prone to making decisions that are shortsighted, fear based, unethical, or just plain greedy. A leader can get so hell-bent on getting results that he or she can lose sight of the means that make the results happen: people. Results are produced by the people being led, the ones doing the actual work. When the pressure for results monopolizes a leader’s attention, he or she becomes susceptible to treating people like expendable objects whose only purpose, he or she thinks, is to get results. Who cares if people are burnt out, I’ll just replace them with fresher resources. Besides, morale will go back up once we get the results we’re after!

Hubris—dangerous overconfidence that we refer to as the leadership “Killer”—wants the leader to be gluttonous for results, obsessed with getting more out of everyone and everything. If the Killer can get the leader to judge his worth only against his contribution to a financial end, it can make him pay less attention to all the important means to that end. The Killer wants the leader to intensify the pressure for results because it is the surest way to ensure the poor treatment of others. The end goal of the Killer is for the leader to become so fixated on getting results that he becomes blind to this fundamental truth: When you treat people poorly, you get poor results.

The Pressure of the Leader’s Responsibility

Matt Walsh is the third-generation co-owner of Walsh Construction, a $6 billion family owned construction company based in Chicago. The company has for nearly a decade run the Walsh Group Leadership Initiative, an 18-month leadership program for the company’s high-potential leaders. Matt and his co-CEO brother, Dan, have attended every leadership “summit” since the program’s inception. During the very first workshop, Matt was asked, “What is something about leading others that might not be obvious to young leaders?” 

Matt thought for a moment, and replied, “The burden of leadership.” 

The room got quiet as he continued: “Now, don’t get me wrong, leadership comes with far more rewards than burdens—such as getting to develop the company’s next generation of leaders. But it also comes with heavy responsibilities. In my case, as the company has grown, so, too, has the weight of having to continuously find new opportunities to keep everyone productively working. You’re supporting families and putting kids through college and making car payments. Your livelihoods depend on the business being stable, profitable, and growing. I feel a tremendous responsibility to all of you. You all have given me a great life, and I see it as my job to do the same for you. And that’s a burden because I am driven to not let you down, but it’s also a great joy because if I get it right, I can make a positive difference in your life.” 

When you’re a leader, your primary responsibility is to leave people and the organization better off than when you found them. But the pressures of your other, nonwork responsibilities also vie for your attention. You’re also responsible for being a good spouse, parent, son or daughter, friend, and churchgoer, for example. Sometimes it can feel like everyone and everything wants a piece of you, and that on some level you’re leaving everyone a little disappointed.

Faced with mounting responsibility, many leaders push their own health to the bottom of the priority list and become self-neglectful. Workaholism is commonplace for those in leadership roles, who justify it as having a good “work ethic.” Self-care becomes virtually nonexistent, and diet and exercise fall down on the priority list. According to research cited in CEO Magazine,82 percent of CEOs are overweight, 69 percent were found to be in “hopelessly poor physical condition,” and almost 60 percent were unable to even touch their toes!

Being a responsible, hardworking leader is a good thing, until it mutates into unhealthy self-neglect. Research also shows that 100 percent of CEOs suffer some form of stress ailment, most commonly backaches and headaches. Even for CEOs who are in good physical condition, the impact of sustained stress, combined with a perpetual lack of sleep, take a physical toll. Heart disease, which is hastened by stress and poor sleep, is the leading cause of death among leaders. 

Hubris is on the lookout for the self-neglectful leader who is weighed down with the burden of responsibility. It knows that the more responsibilities the leader is carrying, the more the coiled spring of irresponsibility wants to burst forth with non-leaderlike expression. Such a leader, hubris knows, is vulnerable to making impulsive choices that give him or her temporary escape or relief from carrying responsibility’s heavy burdens. It knows that the more exhausted a leader is, the more susceptible he or she will be to character erosion, where principles can soften to the point of being compromised.

Only those who have grappled with their hubris as it has attempted to take over, those who have taken care of themselves and remained aware of what they owe to those they lead—like Matt Walsh—can rise above the Killer’s grasp and remain a humble and effective leader.

Excerpt from “The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance,” by Bill Treasurer and Captain John R. Havlik.

Bill Treasurer is the founder and chief encouragement officer at Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company that exists to help people and organizations live more courageously. A former member of the U.S. High Diving Team, Treasurer is considered the originator of the new organizational development practice of courage-building. For more than two decades, he has designed and delivered leadership and succession planning programs for experienced and emerging leaders for clients such as NASA, Accenture, CNN, Saks Fifth Avenue, Hugo Boss, UBS Bank, Walsh Construction, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Captain John “Coach” Havlik, U.S. Navy SEAL (Retired), led special operations teams in classified and unclassified operations around the world throughout his 31-year naval career, including the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the SEAL’s most elite operational unit. Capt. Havlik was a nationally ranked swimmer and Olympic Trials qualifier, and coached at several major universities. He is a member of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame and Mountaineer Legends Society.

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