Why leaders must own their sense of worth.
To avoid burnout and scale as leaders, we must take back the judgment of our own worth
The faltering father
I found myself doing something that I feel to be quite shameful recently. I was kneeling down, getting in the face of my eight-year-old son, and raising my voice to him.
I found myself saying these words:
Why do you have to be like this? I really wanted to have a good night tonight. I just wanted to relax and enjoy time together. Why do you have to be like this?
Thinking back on these words, I feel a sense of shame and self-judgment.
If I let that pass by for a moment, I am also able to access a bit of humor: looking at myself as a father, as a 41-year-old man, handing to my 8-year-old son the responsibility for my emotions. Asking him to take charge of my experience of the night; whether I was going to have fun and relax or be completely stressed out.
I shared this story with a client recently, pushing through the shame, because I thought the story might be helpful to her.
The client was explaining to me how she felt hamstrung by a desire for approval from those around her from her:
- From her leadership team
- From her business partners
- From her romantic partner
In the session, we began to explore together what it is to hand our well-being to others.
The setup we often share
I see this in myself first. As a coach, I also see it in the lives of dozens of CEOs and leaders: this handing over of our well-being to another. To another person, to the success of our business, or to some amorphous stranger (“I want to prove them wrong!”)
This desire for approval from others does not typically come from a negative place. For most of us, it is something we learned long ago and which has served a purpose in our lives.
I have written before about how frequently, as a coach, I witness the dynamic of early life promotions in the life stories of the leaders I meet.
Many of us founder or CEO types come from families where we were asked to step into adulthood, or caretaking roles, quite early in our lives.
We begin, at an early age, to fuse our sense of identity and well-being with the feedback we are getting from those in our lives whom we have been charged with caretaking.
In my life, this took the form of being a friend and emotional ally to my mother as she navigated my father’s alcohol addiction. I don’t share this to shame my mother or my father but rather to illustrate from my own life the dynamic I see often in leaders.
For those of us that received these early life promotions, leadership roles can feel very natural.
We have learned how to put the needs, interests, and emotions of others, ahead of our own. In our families of origin, we were rewarded for it.
The rewards continued in leadership roles.
All hail the selfless leader
Those of us who come into leadership with this background are often praised for our willingness to put the needs, interests, and well-being of our employees or teams ahead of our own.
The dynamic here can have positive results in our early years as leaders.
Many of us have superpowers around our abilities to read the room: to perceive the emotions of others to surmise in advance what a team or company or culture might need.
We have honed these superpowers since childhood.
Our ability to caretake others has become equated with our own safety and sense of identity. It has become a big part of our place in the world. And we have excelled from this place.
However, over a period of years, as we live our way into our lifetimes, this can be a setup for difficulty, fatigue, and burnout.
I myself woke up in my 30s to find I had never really taken time or space to consider my own happiness and well-being. I had lost touch with what in childhood had been my birthright: a strong sense of self and a strong connection with my own happiness. The ability to access my own emotions at will.
Taking off the mask
My first time in therapy was back in college. I remember my therapist looking at me and saying, “We’ve been talking about some really hard topics today. Yet the expression on your face hasn’t changed. In fact, you’ve shown almost no expression.”
I found that very surprising because I considered myself a fairly emotional and open person.
The therapist shared with me that children who grow up in alcoholic homes, or who have other versions of early promotion experience, often detach themselves from their own emotions. We learn that it’s safer to keep them shielded behind the mask.
I often hear in coaching sessions from CEOs and leaders they feel it is safer to keep their emotions masked and to maintain a serene face for the benefit of others.
In another session recently, a client shared a sense that he was lacking intimacy with his wife, with friends, and with his leadership team.
He went on to explain the lesson he had received early in life that his primary role was to take care of others first and that acknowledging his own emotions first was an act of selfishness. As a result, in his 30s, he finds himself disconnected from his own emotions.
In our session, he found it very difficult to access or identify his emotions. The noting and sharing of his own emotions was not a practice he was accustomed to. To meet him in person, you would never know!
Having spent hours with him in sessions, I found him deeply personable likable, enjoyable; the kind of person that could be the life of a party or whom you might seek out to spend time with at a dinner party.
In the session, we explored defining intimacy as ‘providing another human unfiltered access to the real emotions we are experiencing in real-time’. It is, after all, what we do with our closest romantic partners and friends.
As happened with this client, those of us who grew up with the message that our identity or safety is fused with our ability to read and interpret the emotions of others often have a difficult time accessing our own emotions in real-time.
Without easy access to our own emotions, it is impossible to let others in on our emotional state.
If I cannot ‘feel’ happy, I will let your happiness be my gauge
With these dynamics simmering for so many leaders, it is no surprise many of us find ourselves placing our happiness and sense of well-being in the hands of others.
Sometimes in our romantic partners, as with the first client I mentioned. Sometimes in our children (mia culpa). Sometimes in our leadership teams.
Very often in their performance of our companies or with our investors.
For those of us who prone to outsource our sense of well-being, any of these places are easier resting places for our sense of well-being than where it most belongs: with ourselves.
It feels more familiar to place it outside.
We have been rewarded for placing it outside.
This approach has kept us safe.
But, eventually, the difficulties come.
Hitting the wall
Place our well-being in the hands of anything external, and we will eventually wake up to find ourselves in some degree of burnout and resentment.
Sometimes it shows up at work. The most widely-shared article I’ve ever written was about my own burnout. As a result, I have numerous CEOs reach out each week wanting to talk about burnout.
Most share how in their early days of working and leading, having their sense of well-being tied to their work felt energizing. It drove long days and weeks. It helped them to push through the difficulty of starting something from nothing.
But, as those weeks turned into months, and months into years, fatigue and exhaustion arose. At some point, we each grow fed up with having our own emotions and needs put on hold.
Whether needs are put on hold for family members, for the financial growth of a business, for the hopes of investors, or for the needs of customers, the results are the same.
We wake up to find something within us shouting for change. Something within us demands attention.
I hear variations of this story:
- Some talk about fits of rage.
- Others drug or alcohol addiction.
- Many share about anxiety or depression, anger turned inward.
Just last week, one very successful CEO spoke about finding himself in increasingly more frequent fits of rage. Meetings or conversations that previously would have left him only a bit frustrated were now leading to feelings of deep anger and resentment.
We explored in the conversation how a part of him may be the taskmaster and may be ensuring that he reads the room for the needs of others before attending to his own needs. That there may be another younger part of him who has been ignored and now desires to make his needs quite clear.
The way that that was showing up for him was in anger and depression. Entrepreneurs are 30% more likely to experience depression than non-entrepreneurs.
Where can change begin?
With all of these shared experiences and our own versions of this familiar story, where might change begin?
It begins with waking up to the need.
In coaching, we often explore the experiences leaders have “in the moment”. Examining the split-second where the anger or depression comes, we will explore the stories that come immediately following the experience: the meeting, the conversation, the stimuli. In the story, we often find an indication of what it is the client has been carrying.
A few common stories include:
- “Whatever I do, I am always alone.”
- “If I share what’s really going on for me, no one will want to work with me, or be with me, or help me.”
These stories are imprinted upon us in childhood. Many of us carry them for years living by them even as we fail to examine their truthfulness.
If we strip them down, they are always simple stories; they are the stories that we constructed about ourselves before our brains had developed to tell more complicated or nuanced stories.
In my case, the more nuanced story I can see as an adult goes:
Dad has a substance abuse problem. He is carrying some anger from his childhood. Mom is having a hard time with that. She doesn’t have a lot of support around her. Both Mom and Dad are living in a conservative town in the Midwest where people don’t talk about complications in marriage and family like this.
Mom is therefore venting with whoever’s around. Right now, Matt, you happen to be around. This isn’t about you. You are totally okay just being a kid.
You are totally okay not worrying about what’s going on for your parents. And you are safe.
You are going to be safe and loved. No matter what happens with them.
That is the story I can construct now. But it is not the story that was accessible to my 8-year-old brain.
The story I could access then went something like:
Things aren’t safe.
The family is at risk. You are doing something wrong. You need to help them.
As kids we tend to make stories about ourselves. Therapy and coaching are good places to begin to explore these stories.
For me, it is also helpful to find ways to slow down my responses to the events.
Meditation and journaling are both helpful tools for slowing down my response and for examining what has actually happened.
This slowing down helps me to create some space to explore how I would like to respond. I can determine my response from a grounded and resourced place.
The benefits of examining our stories
Working on our own stories, exploring ways to take back our own sense of well-being, can pay tremendous dividends. Both for us as humans and also for us as leaders.
Leaders who have a deep sense of self-acceptance, and a deep sense of their own well-being apart from the business are able to show up for their teams, their customers, and their shareholders from a deeply grounded and creative place.
Such groundedness is utterly foreign to leaders who lack a strong sense of their own value.
A leader who is grounded in her own well-being knows that whether the business succeeds or fails, she will be okay. Her value will be intact.
Therefore, when the business faces a crisis. She is able to show up with creativity and curiosity.
She is able to lead the way.
She can model for her team, what it is to bring that curiosity and creativity to bear on the problem the company is facing.
She does not need to incite panic.
Rather, she invites partnership.
She models for her team, a sense that we are going to be okay.
The immature leader may believe that letting the cat out of the bag that we’re all going to be okay irrespective of what happens may cause people to work less hard. The mature grounded leader knows that it actually frees minds and fans the flames of inherent motivation. It calms nerves and allows people to bring their creativity to bear on the problem.
Such support allows the team to fully activate the prefrontal cortex region of their brains necessary for solving complex problems rather than simply operating out of the fight or flight mode
Now is the time to take back your own sense of worth
To evolve and scale as leaders, we must take back our sense of well-being, our identities.
We must invite them home to where they belong: with us.
We must learn to deconstruct the stories we have long carried.
We must learn practices of self-care.
This is not easy work.
It takes years, if not a lifetime.
This is work that is impossible to do alone.
If you find yourself caught up in your own stories, if you find yourself riding the ride of your wellbeing tied to the business, to your romantic partner, or to your own performance, you are not alone.
If you find yourself facing fatigue, burnout, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, as a result of this outsourcing of your well being, you are not alone.
You are in the company of some of the greatest leaders I have met or coached.
If you would like support, or to connect with others who are facing the same questions, please reach out.
In the meantime, sending love and hugs from Los Angeles.