Why Good People Become (Very) Bad Bosses

When I met ‘Marcus’ a couple of years ago I found him to be an engaging, talented, creative and emotionally intelligent senior manager of a retail goods company. He really cared about his people and he found deep satisfaction in being part of a team that helped to meet the needs of people in large and small cities across the US. He was bright, charming, fun to be with and generally a good guy and a good manager. Our team was working with his boss and the team, and as part of that we’d conducted qualitative 360 degree feedback—everyone interviewed about Marcus spoke about his dedication, his intense commitment and his passion for the team, the people, and the work.

Recently Marcus’ boss called us to come in and work with Marcus again…and this time it was a very different story. The CEO explained that something had gone very wrong and Marcus was close to being let go, at the very height of his career. What I heard surprised me tremendously—Marcus had become demanding, demeaning, and was micromanaging his team. He was alienating people up, down and around. One of his key team members had left and two more were on the verge. Rumor had it that there was trouble at home, and it was a fact that Marcus was spending a lot of evenings out with young associates, partying in some pretty sketchy places.

Well. What on earth had happened? We set out to find out. One of our Teleos coaches was asked to work with Marcus (she agreed on condition that Marcus be open to the idea). She’d had a good relationship with him in the past, and gave him a call. They worked out a plan to meet, and the detective work began.

Marcus was, in the coach’s words “totally stressed and deeply unhappy”. Over the next few months, she and Marcus unraveled what had happened over the past couple of years. The story that emerged was all-too-familiar. We hear it and see the unfortunate results all the time these days: Good leaders slowly slip into dissonance as a result of the unending pressures of their jobs, the responsibilities of leading people and organizations in challenging times, and the seemingly hopeless fight to find balance in life.

Over time and unchecked, the relentless pressure gets to even the best of us. Like Marcus, we slowly lose touch with ourselves and the people around us. We stop taking care of ourselves, have less empathy for others, get tunnel vision and find ourselves on the proverbial hamster wheel: trapped in an endless loop.

We call this the Sacrifice Syndrome: Good managers and leaders take their responsibilities seriously. We really care. We are tuned in and turned on—never more than a device away from a request, a problem or a crisis. We start working too much and sleeping too little. Whatever balance we might have had between work and home begins to disappear, and that causes even more stress. We feel like we are giving, giving, and giving, and there seems to be no end in sight.

When we are trapped in the Sacrifice Syndrome it is entirely likely that we will begin to lose our edge: we make bad decisions, don’t think things through, lose our creativity, become sharp with people, micromanage. Our emotional intelligence seems to dwindle, as do our cognitive abilities.

Why does this happen? It’s a matter of neuropsychology: when we live with chronic stress—we call the kind of stress leaders experience Power Stress—day in and day out, month after month after year, we literally shut down. We become clinically distressed, with all that goes with it: burnout, diminished effectiveness, even illness.

What can we do? First of all, we need to recognize that even the most resilient among us need to pay attention to what is happening to us. In other words, we need to attend to ourselves holistically: mind, body, heart and spirit. We need to pay attention to the interaction of thoughts, feelings and behavior. Are we on an even keel? Are we tuned in to the information in the environment and the quiet voice inside that tells us which way to turn? Are we attending to our bodies—listening to the messages that signal loud and clear whether we are healthy or heading toward a breakdown of some sort? Are we in touch with our values and beliefs? Are we living them?

Attending this way to ourselves –and also to other people and our environment—is one aspect of mindfulness: a state of mind (literally) that scholars and researchers such as Ellen Langer have shown improves cognitive functioning, learning, and relationship skills. Living mindfully is also a first and critical step in avoiding (or recovering from) the Sacrifice Syndrome.

There are other experiences we can cultivate as a way to counter the inevitable pressures of our busy lives and jobs. Two that we have studied are hope and compassion. Hope is what we experience when we look forward to a future that is better than the present—a future that is feasible, attractive, and somehow tied to our dreams for ourselves and the people and institutions we care about. Hope is a powerful driver of our emotions and our behavior: when we feel hope, the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. This physiological reaction actually helps us to counter the negative physical and psychological responses associated with power stress and the Sacrifice Syndrome. When we feel hope, we can more easily direct our energy and our actions toward the right things, and in the right way.

For leaders, engaging and cultivating a sense of hope makes sense. It is good for us—and it is contagious. It’s good for the people around us. But compassion? What does that have to do with work and leadership? Everything, it turns out. Like hope, the experience of compassion engages the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to fight the effects of stress and destructive emotions. And like hope, compassion is contagious—people blossom when they feel a leader’s empathy, care and concern. When we coach, encourage, and guide people toward their dreams and our goals, the emotional reality of a group or an organization becomes resonant: ripe with energy, creativity and commitment—exactly what is needed for people to be at their best.

Mindfulness, hope and compassion: the keys to managing the Cycle of Sacrifice and Renewal. And, as Marcus found out, cultivating these habits does not happen by accident. We have to work at it. Marcus did work at developing strategies to renew himself: with his coach, he took a good, hard look at what was going on with himself, at work and in life. And he didn’t like it, and his current life and lifestyle were far from the ideal he imagined. He decided to take control, to find his way back to himself so he could once again reach for his dreams. And he succeeded. He’s doing fine at work, his team is engaged and performing. His partner at home is much, much happier, as are the kids. It was a close call, but he’s made it through. And as he puts it “I’ll never let that happen again. I’m paying attention now.”

You can start on the road to renewal today by listening to life’s wake up calls. Take a few minutes and reflect on your work, your job, your life. Do you sense that things aren’t quite right? Are there any subtle wake-up calls that you should pay attention to? Maybe your partner at home is becoming distant, your boss has suggested that things aren’t up to par, or maybe you have been getting too many colds, flu, etc. Maybe you have stopped attending your kids’ events, or you aren’t playing with them as much. Maybe you just aren’t laughing as often as you used to. Listen carefully! These wake up calls matter!

If you hear the call, you can begin to change. You can begin to build daily practices into your life to help you stay whole, healthy and engaged. These practices don’t have to be fancy, either. But they do have to be regular—meaning daily. And they need to be solitary. Five or ten minutes of quiet reflection every day can do a world of good. Or maybe you can manage a thirty minute walk outside, or a bit of time in the garden. Maybe you can just find a quiet place somewhere during the day to take a few deep breaths and think about the people you care about, your hopes and dreams for them. Or take ten minutes to seek out a colleague and praise their work, check how things are going for them. Building mindfulness, hope and compassion into daily life doesn’t have to be hard, and you don’t have to be a saint to do it. A little bit goes a long way.

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