Cost of being a Senior Leader

“It is strange to be known universally and yet be so lonely” -Albert Einstein


Deliberate choices don’t guarantee complete control or satisfaction. Life sometimes takes over, whether it’s parents’ dementia, or a teenager’s car accident or a successful ride in our careers. Then we look at the rear-view mirror and realise it’s too late to take a detour and start all over again. This is the feeling most senior executives tend to experience at the zenith of their career.

When Melody Wilding, a renowned performance coach, in her work Think like an Executive coined the three psychological skills sets for a senior leader, namely realistic optimism, ambiguous tolerance and emotional regulation, little did we fathom that, apart from what is apparent on the face of it, we also need to introspect the importance of the ‘true emotional state’ of senior leaders, and how it impacts their lives in and out of their conscious zones.

With the popular saying ‘lonely at the top’ seeming to be true and needing no further qualification, leaders have often been portrayed as heroes. Many commentaries subscribe to the ‘romanticised’ accounts that exaggerate the power and supremacy of leaders.

Many of us know what it feels like to be ‘looked up to’, but not ‘seen’. Some of it is the fault of those who simply want power and supremacy as an instrument for a successful life and what it does for them— at least visibly— making them feel more important, giving them greater access and using the associations for their own gains. This segment also feels enamoured by the fat pay cheques and constant social and professional prestige which are tough to let go. This as I call, is that portion of the iceberg, which always stands tall and projects distinctively.

The Centre of Creative Leadership came out with a white paper recently concluding 88 per cent of senior leaders suffer from uncontrollable stress in their life and try to work out options to mitigate the same. This is the cost of the extrinsic accolades that senior leaders receive as mentioned earlier.

Leaders strive and achieve perfection with minimal resources. If they do not, they become vulnerable and fragile, and that is something they don’t want to be. Perfection, unfortunately, can never be won over in this cycle of mankind as our brains are constantly ‘seeking’ and ‘exploring’ new avenues and opportunities. More often than not we are rarely content with what we possess or have accomplished.

The other end of the spectrum is also not that rosy. In addition to professional commitments, the leaders are expected to be equally committed to their personal lives too. The same translates to quality time spent with spouse, children and family members, attending family congregations, connecting with long-lost friends and more significantly, sparing time for oneself. As much as they would like to maintain a healthy balance, the reality leaves more to be desired.

This unintended imbalance leads to neglect of family, peers and other close accomplices, gradually increasing the psychological distance. The senior leaders then find themselves at the precipice of imminent emotional and physical disintegration.

The idea of abandoning the power and supremacy built over one’s critical timespan is the toughest task for senior leaders. The silver lining is that today’s leaders are beginning to realise that such powers are timebound and short-lived, and thus, seek professional support through coaching, wellness and health initiatives. Too many smart and successful corporates buy into the notion that success is ultimately a solo venture and a path that most must walk alone. This is just not true. The path to professional fulfilment does not have to be a solo walk if you are willing to invest time and attention into the relationships that are important to you. There will come a time when in order to stay effective in professional and personal roles, leaders will have to make a conscious effort to maintain a healthy balance and calibrate their expectations.

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