Fantastic leaders seem invincible. But scratch the surface and the leader may be falling apart. Coaching can call attention to this dangerous pathway
By Lindsay Wittenberg
When leaders rise to the top it’s because they’re capable and effective. They gain a reputation for inspiring, initiating and getting things done, and for being a repository of wisdom and knowledge. Stellar leaders look invincible and unstoppable. Their employing organisations seem to be getting exceptional value from them.
Working with such people, it often strikes me that their boundaries have become blurred. Sometimes they find themselves creating or undertaking initiatives beyond their remit, and although they and others know this, the pattern continues. Sometimes they’re actually stepping into someone else’s job territory. Sometimes they’re the mouthpiece for what others don’t have the courage to say. Very often they go beyond the boundaries that could otherwise be protecting their own wellbeing: they are over-working and/or suffering from stress or anxiety, sacrificing time with their partners and families and on activities that could keep them physically and mentally healthy.
While they look like they’re at the very top of their game, coaching can reveal that they may be just about holding it together, driven by adrenalin, loyalties and old messages about the value of working in this way.
In my experience these people tend not to question how they’re working until they begin to have symptoms of physical or mental ill-health (clients of mine have exhibited symptoms such as eczema, back and shoulder pain, stuttering, high blood pressure, involuntarily holding the breath, anxiety and sleeping problems) or relationships are suffering – or until as coach I call attention to what they’re doing and where it’s likely to lead. The risk to the individual can be significant. The organisation is also running a risk to (at least) the ROI on their ‘investment’.
There are many reasons behind these patterns. From a systemic point of view, the individual may be respecting old loyalties to authority figures (such as the parent who paid positive attention to them only when they worked hard). They may have developed a perception that their place is as the single capable or responsible one in their group (family, class or team). They may be anxious about their sustainability within restructuring.
So the perception of ‘strong’ may be masking ‘simply human’. When I have coached clients to become aware of their patterns of behaviour, and possible systemic factors, they realise they have choices. When I have worked with them so they discover more of their personal purpose, they perceive what is important to them in a different relief, and make different assessments of what they deem ‘success’. They find their voices and often courage. They create a new balance.
I reflect often on parallel blindness between the coaching client and myself: how and whether I, the individual, and/or the organisation may be blind and constrained within valid or false boundaries of strength.
- Stellar leaders look invincible. Their employing organisations seem to be getting exceptional value from them.
- Often their boundaries are blurred.
- They may be on the edge of falling apart, but to the outside world it seems opposite.
- The risk to the individual can be significant. The organisation also runs a risk to (at least) the ROI on their ‘investment’.
- The perception of ‘strong’ may be masking ‘simply human’.
- Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and cross-cultural coaching