Leadership stress; my problem, or yours?

It didn’t dawn on me how serious and pervasive the problem was until I had car trouble.

Or so I thought.

Stuck in a big city rush hour jam, windows open, engines revving all around me, I first heard it: A loud, clanging sound emanating from somewhere beneath me. The sound followed me, inching along, pretty much down the entire block to the corner.

Even when I made the crawling turn at the intersection, it sounded like I was dragging and scraping my entire exhaust system on the tarmac below.

My hands gripped the steering wheel; was I suddenly going to lose a tire?Which appointments would I have to postpone or cancel for the potentially day-changing delay?

As the good grace of God would have it (and I didn’t even pray for it!) the dealership was right there. I immediately veered my ailing automobile into the garage half expecting my car immanently and literally to fall apart.

The technicians had my car on the hoist in minutes. After a quick check, they approached me slowly, their eyes searching me carefully. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your car, sir,” they reported.

If it wasn’t me then whose noise was it that followed me down the road? I so easily positioned myself to assume someone else’s problem was mine. Understandable, you might say, since they were so close to me their noise sounded like mine.

But that’s just the point. It is precisely those close to us — our family, spouse, close friends, those we lead and care about — where the temptation to be triangulated with someone else’s problem is most seductive.

Edwin Friedman in his book, “A Failure of Nerve; Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix”, suggests that this natural tendency to take on the emotional problems of others inhibits, even undermines, effective leadership –whether in families, marriages, or nation states.

It is not hard work — or even over-work — that causes stress. Stress in leaders is primarily caused by becoming responsible for something that rightly belongs in the purview of others.

Consider these brief citations from Friedman’s book:

“The stress on leaders … primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in a responsible position for the relationship of two others” (220)

“Stress and burnout are … due primarily to getting caught in a responsible position for others and their problems” (202)

“Stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others” (194)

Leaders will be wise to remain connected and engaged within the natural relationships of home, family and work. However, the effective leader will be able to self-regulate her/himself so as not to become enmeshed in the emotional reactivity of those relationships.

This may be particularly difficult for personalities who tend to over-function anyway, and compulsively step over the boundaries of others. They often do so on the pretense of care and love.

Especially in caregiving professions where this practice may even be expected and encouraged, the healthy leader will nevertheless take a stand and not lose nerve when asserting one’s stance and self-differentiating, despite the criticisms coming her or his way of being crass, uncaring and cold.

By the way, they did find something wrong with my car. But it had nothing to do with what I thought was my problem.

The only thing a leader can do is focus on his or her own self — to understand one’s position and function within marriage, family, and community.

And give thanks for the sometimes unexpected opportunities that arise to examine one’s self in context.

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