Warning: leadership can have side effects. Alienation, anxiety, emotional turmoil, exhaustion, debilitating headaches, grinding insomnia, irritability, drug and alcohol addictions, uncharacteristic risk-taking, catastrophic life decisions, the desire to “chuck it all in”, wetting yourself in public, marriage breakdowns, heart attacks, suicidal thoughts and more. We often talk about the privilege of being a leader, but this list illustrates the darker side of the heavy toll placed on those at the top.
The constant – and often self-imposed – pressure has been exacerbated by the pandemic, noisy activist investors, the fractious political environment and the current “permacrisis”. For there is a silent burnout epidemic plaguing business leaders. Behind closed doors, people whisper about it, discuss fears, share horror stories. But publicly, there’s an eerie quiet on the topic. As one executive coach writes in our feature on management burnout, the corporate world’s “bravado and bullshit” stops people admitting there’s a problem, even to themselves.
Leaders also know that their huge salaries preclude them from public sympathy. Those at the top are expected to remain calm and in control at all times, to make personal sacrifices, to be totally dedicated to their role and certainly never complain about their lot. But as the shape of leadership changes, so too must the expectations around what is required to do the job successfully. That starts with ending the silence surrounding mental health and burnout. People’s lives depend on it.