Saving the lost leaders


He’s in his fifties, a high-profile executive, often quoted in the business press. He has a six-figure package, sometimes seven in a good year. He owns a Home Counties pile, a trophy car, and takes exotic holidays in fashionably obscure destinations.

And… his children ignore him, on the rare occasions that their paths cross. His wife has no interest in spending quality time with him. His belly inches are chasing his age in years. He lies to his GP, his insurers and his chairman about his increasingly scary relationship with alcohol. He suspects (correctly) he will be culled in the next corporate ‘re-imagineering’ spasm at his company. He tries to imagine where he could go and what he could do if (when) this happens – and he has no idea.

He is a lost leader.

Our practice frequently puts us in close contact with lost leaders. These people have over-achieved in their careers, while their private lives – indeed, their entire personas beyond work – have atrophied. These people have won the work race, and have lost their own lives in the process.

You probably know several lost leaders; indeed, you might be a lost leader yourself, or on the way to becoming one.

This goes deeper than just a simplistic work-life balance. When talking to a lost leader I find that they can gain useful insights from getting to grips with three distinct aspects of their lives. (The management thinker Gillian Stamp identified four ‘journeys’ undertaken by each of us, but I think a basis for good understanding can be achieved using just these three.)

The public self is the version of you that is visible to everybody, and is usually focused on your work; the private self is the persona you share with just your family and friends; and the inner self is your entirely internal persona, the ‘real’ you. The inner self is formed in your early years by the culture and circumstances you are born into, but as you start to take control of your life you are able to shape your inner self through your own decisions: choosing to keep up with your old college friends or let them go… deciding whether to make the effort to keep your body in good shape or let that go as well… developing a passion, whether it be for Wagner, socialism, classic motorbikes or whatever. All these choices shape your inner self.

You have a finite amount of time and energy to invest in your various selves; lost leaders are those who have seriously over-invested in their public self at the expense of their private and inner selves – often, frankly, with the connivance of their employers.

Neglecting your private and inner selves can cause different kinds of harm. So, when you tell your partner for the fifth time this month that a pressing work deadline prevents you from having supper with the family, your private self will be a little dented, but basically still OK because your family is prepared to support you in your career. But the real damage is to your inner self, which is constantly making this lying excuse because the truth is that you’d rather hang out with your work buddies of an evening than talk to your family. Your inner self is damaging your private self by habitually lying to your family. And, if you ever confessed as much to your kids and partner at the dinner table, your private self would come off the rails, right there and then.
Can the lost leader salvage his or her life? It depends.

People in their mid-fifties are tough to turn around, and a lot hangs on the extent to which they have burned bridges in their private lives. Some repair damaged family relationships by, for example, reinvesting in time with their grandchildren, or deliberately cutting back their work responsibilities. Others switch jobs. Some just admit defeat, pressing the reset button on their private lives by starting new families.

But some can see no escape route, and keep taking the money while awaiting the end-of-life sentence that is redundancy. After all, if they have no real life beyond work, what kind of happy future can they expect to look forward to when they are no longer wanted at work?

In general, it is easier for people to avoid becoming lost leaders in the first place. We find that most 35-year-old executives, once they come to understand what they are sacrificing at the altar of their public self, are prepared to take positive steps to reinvest in their non-work lives.

The question that gets their attention is: if you’re working over the weekend, what are you not doing? And is that sacrifice, that non-investment – whether it be playing with the kids, meeting up with friends, spending the evening with your partner, enjoying a pastime – really worth it?

These judgments can be made only by the individual. Nobody is forcing you to work across the weekend – you decided to do that yourself. Perhaps you engaged in displacement activity during the week to avoid getting to grips with a high-priority but tough assignment. Perhaps you knew you had been given too much work to do, but failed to push back with your boss. Perhaps you just wanted to show, yet again, what a good soldier you are.
Perhaps you should rethink your priorities.

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