Most senior leaders lack any form of an honest, effective and timely feedback loop, and when they succumb to the pressures of the role and begin to flail, things can go bad in a hurry. While I’m a huge fan of adapting the “Swim Buddy” technique used by Navy SEALS to ensure someone is always there to save your skin, you should be on the lookout for these five warning signs suggesting that it’s time to hit the pause button before you suffer a leadership meltdown.
5 Warning Signs that You’re Approaching a Leadership Meltdown:
1. When you’re feeling isolated. There are times when leading others is one of the loneliest jobs in the world, however, when you’re beginning to feel like it’s you against the world, you’re on the brink of some bad moves. You might be on the hook for the final call on tough decisions, but it’s essential to draw people in to the dialog and gain their help with the vexing issues in front of the firm. Resist succumbing to a siege mentality or withdrawing to your bunker.
2. When you quit trusting your team members. The sense that you can no longer trust your key people often contributes to the creeping sense of isolation referenced above. Poor numbers, some negative surprises or project disasters can make you question the people you’ve tapped for leadership roles. Your instinct says, “I can’t trust him (or them) anymore.” Reality is that unless something deeply unethical or offensive has happened to genuinely tear a hole in the trust you’ve established with others, a one-time surprise or even a major misfire are not reasons to suddenly distrust. Repeated misfires are another issue.
The proper question is: do you trust yourself to have put the right people in roles around you? Don’t let your sudden doubt poison the well of trust on your team.
3. When you keep changing your mind on key decisions. Decisions are the fuel for actions, and when the senior leader flails and frequently reverses course on major decisions—the firm is in danger of crashing. Your inability to stick to a decision broadcasts that you aren’t sure what to do, inviting frustration and fear into the broader environment.
4. When you feel compelled to mislead your employees. I’ve observed this one on multiple occasions and the only one being fooled when the senior leader pumps sunshine or denies troubles is the senior leader.
5. When your primary emotion is anger. Stress and frustration manifest in different ways for all of us, however, it’s common for senior leaders under fire to respond like tyrants, barking commands, shooting messengers and railing at the incompetence they see in front of them. If you find yourself navigating your days with a growing sense of anger and frustration with everyone and everything around you, watch out.
An Ounce of Self-Reflection is Worth a Pound of Cure:
If we ignore the symptoms that tell us something is wrong physically, we jeopardize our long-term health and even short-term survival. The same goes for a leader who ignores the warning signs outlined above.
It’s difficult to get honest feedback when you’re in charge. While I encourage you to ask and survey others about your performance, the person looking back at you in the mirror is the last line of defense against a meltdown.
I’ve coached a number of senior leaders and executives back from the brink by helping them introduce a daily period of personal reflection on their performance and their impact on others.
Armed with a journal (analog or digital), these leaders jot down notes about their daily interactions and the outcomes from those interactions. A few minutes at the end of the day to review the notes and roll-up one or two key “commitments to improve” tomorrow helps plant the seeds for near-future strengthening. Spending a few moments chronicling victories or what-worked serves to cap off the day on a positive note. A quick review of the positives and commitments the next morning helps the leader enter the day in the right frame of mind to navigate the challenges. Rinse and repeat.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
It’s easy for stressful circumstances to send a leader’s attitude careening towards the rocks. While it’s great to believe you have people who will tell you you’re acting like a jerk, you cannot count on it. Instead, build in the discipline and presence of mind to review your own performance daily and identify those activities and behaviors that must be strengthened or eliminated. While you need feedback to grow, you’re your own last line of defense against disaster.
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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.