Finding the joy in leadership

Heading up teams and organizations can be draining. How can leaders reclaim the pleasures of their job?

Leadership is a burden.” Those were the words of Mike, the owner of a $6 billion construction company, when he was asked to share one thing about leadership that might surprise new leaders, as part of the kick-off session for a leadership development programme I was facilitating. He explained to the group:

“I wake up every day thinking, ‘How will I keep the opportunities flowing for everyone?’ Without opportunities, people can’t pay their mortgage, make car payments, put their kids through college, etc. I want everybody to have a good life, and that’s a responsibility and a burden.”

Leadership is hard for all leaders, not just those leading multi-billion dollar companies. Why? The drive for results is incessant and your reputation is always on the line. No matter how well you do with this project, or with that customer, you’re expected to do more and better next time. Your bosses are counting on you to not let them down. Your direct reports are counting on you to provide them with rewarding and meaningful work. All of this can take the joy out of leading.

What’s a leader to do?

Over the last 30 years, I have worked with thousands of leaders as they navigated the challenges of being in a leadership role, in organizations as diverse as Nasa, eBay, Spanx, UBS Bank, Southern Company, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Drawing on the lessons learned with those leaders, I believe there are four important steps that can help put some joy back into your work as a leader.

Cultivate composure

The world can frequently appear insane, but leaders have a responsibility not to get caught up in the tumult. Start by easing into your day with five minutes of quiet reflection. Set up a few purposeful intentions by asking yourself some key questions: how might the current challenges you’re facing be an opportunity for you to further develop as a leader? How can you best serve the people you are leading today? At the very least, consider applying the advice of Benjamin Franklin to start each day by asking “What good do I want to do in the world today?” Then end each day by reviewing your impact: “What good have I done in the world today?”

Defuse stress

As your workday progresses and intensifies, periodically check in with yourself to make sure you’re not getting overly stressed. Dr Henry L Thompson, the author of The Stress Effect and an expert on leading in extreme situations, advises monitoring seven areas: awareness, rest, support, exercise, nutrition, attitude, and continuous learning (notice the easy-to-remember acronym, ‘Arsenal’). When you’re feeling stressed, consider which area might need some of your attention. How is stress affecting you today? Are you getting enough sleep and downtime? Do you have at least one person you can confide in at work? Are you taking care of your physical wellbeing? How is your diet? How is your mood today? What are you doing to stay mentally challenged? Defusing stress and reclaiming joy have everything to do with taking good care of yourself.

One hot-headed leader I’ve worked with had received scathing feedback about how his short fuse caused everyone to tiptoe fearfully around him. His mismanaged stress was undermining his career. Through coaching, it became clear that he basically didn’t practise any self-care. He began extending his lunch break to go for a run, burning off the stress that built up during the morning. Though he felt guilty taking a 90-minute lunch, the extra ‘me time’ paid dividends in terms of lower stress, personal productivity and greater enjoyment.

Get positive

As a leader, people will dump a lot of problems in your lap, expecting you to solve them. When you’re dealing with problem after problem, your day becomes problematic. You feel weighed down. One young chief executive I work with noticed that all the problems people were dumping on him were making him abrasive. He made one simple shift. Now, when people come to his office, he asks, “What’s the best thing going on in your world?” It often catches people off guard, but it gets them talking about the good stuff before moving on to the hard stuff. The chief executive feels less exhausted at the end of each day, and the problem-solving has become more enjoyable.

Be courageous

It’s not always big challenges that take the joy out of leading. Sometimes it comes from getting in a rut of having too few challenges. Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, says that when she feels fearful about trying something new she asks herself a question: “Sara, if you weren’t afraid, would you do it?” If the answer is “Yes,” she takes a deep breath – and does it! Enjoyment is often the result of trying something you’ve never done before. Asking yourself, “Where am I playing it too safe as a leader?” can point you in the direction of the next courageous move worth taking.

Yes, leadership can sometimes feel like a burden. If the role of leader were easy, more people would sign up for it. But you likely became a leader because somebody believed you’d be able to make things happen, despite the inevitable challenges. They believed in you, and you’d do well to believe in yourself too. With these simple steps it is possible to lighten the load. That will be good for you – and for everyone you influence.

Bill Treasurer is the founder and chief encouragement officer of Giant Leap Consulting and author of Leadership Two Words at a Time (Berrett-Koehler).