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I recently asked a trio of entrepreneurs what they wished they had known before they set out on the path to leadership.
Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, who now heads Thrive Global, which aims to end the “stress and burnout epidemic”, told me: “I wish I knew what I discovered the hard way in 2007 when I collapsed from exhaustion . . . That [it is a] delusion that in order to succeed we have to be always on.”
“I wish somebody would have told me how hard it is,” said Anna Skaya, chief executive of Basepaws, which is building a database of feline DNA.
“There are obstacles all the time. All the time,” added designer Diane von Furstenberg, who heads the eponymous fashion group. “Listen, I have a lot of energy . . . That doesn’t mean that I don’t wake up thinking like I’m a total loser, [even] now.”
It probably takes a successful entrepreneur-founder to admit such truths. Even in a world where there is increasing acknowledgment of the dangers of workplace stress, this kind of leadership lesson is only rarely taught in business schools, still less by leadership manuals of the “five ways to be awesome” variety.
Yet this understanding of the many hurdles facing any leader is embedded in the 3,000-year-old Judeo-Christian culture of teaching about how to lead, according to Steven Croft, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford. “The entire tradition is built around the truth that leadership in communities, in business, in political life, in the church is very, very, very difficult,” he recently told a gathering of Christian leaders in Switzerland. “If we understand this then we have made a good beginning. Unless we grasp this, then we will continually struggle and fall.”
As the bishop says, many Old Testament leaders — insecure Saul; wise, but ultimately negligent Solomon; philandering, murderous David — are more anti-hero than hero. They start well, but are prone to corruption.
The comment reminded me of academic Clayton Christensen’s shock on realising that the high aspirations of many of his Harvard Business School and Oxford classmates — including Jeff Skilling, disgraced former chief executive of Enron — had collapsed into “personal dissatisfaction, family failures, professional struggles, even criminal behaviour”.
Too often, leaders suffer from a presumption that a mere title or position gives them the right to act in a certain way.
Studies bear this out. Researchers who primed one member of a group of equals to feel like a leader (by asking them to think and write about a time they had power over someone) found that they later dominated a task and were more overbearing. More worryingly, the same study found that the simple act of giving one member a nametag with the label “leader” actually changed the behaviour of the rest of the team. They were more willing to cave in to the “leader’s” dominant behaviour.
Combine these insights and you reach a worrying conclusion. Leaders who are unprepared for the hardships of the role and adopt a rigid, traditional autocratic approach will bring down not only themselves, but the organisation and others who work for it. When the obstacles to leadership mount up, the bishop suggests, these leaders either become so overwhelmed that they burn out, or they “step back and resign themselves to inaction”.
In his new book Dying for A Paycheck, about the way bad management damages corporate and personal performance, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer cites an employee of a healthcare company whose leader “did not believe in taking care of himself. He really believed in sacrificing his health for the success of the company, and that trickles down”.
The entrepreneur, the academic and the clergyman alight on similar ways of preventing these catastrophic outcomes.
Arianna Huffington draws from the familiar safety guidance on aircraft, which advises parents not to struggle to attach their children’s oxygen masks before their own in an emergency. “When we put our oxygen mask on first, we are actually more effective, more productive and more able to achieve things, without destroying our health or our relationships,” she told me.
In his 2012 bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life? , Prof Christensen advises his students to conceive, choose and manage the purpose of their own lives.
Courageous leadership means continually preparing for and rising to challenges, but, the bishop adds, “courage is hard to exercise when our lives are unbalanced, when we are exhausted and when we are overwhelmed”. “Watch over your inner life” first, he advises, the better to be able to shoulder the outward-facing responsibilities of leadership, for your team, for your organisation or for your community.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor