The Weight of Leadership
It's heavier than you might think
I’ve haven’t written to you in a while, well outside of the leader interview series. My attention has been on a talk I’m giving at LeadDev about the manager of manager’s role and how tricky the transition can be. I’ve also been focused on a few big projects. The first is turning the leader’s series into a formal podcast. I’m hoping to launch it later this month. I can’t wait to share it with you.
The second initiative is naming the leadership business. I'm thrilled to say after four years operating under my name and a very long process, I finally have a name for my leadership business. I’m working on branding and a new website right now. An announcement is coming soon.
A few months ago I talked with Stackhawk VP of Product Lauren Nagel about the weight she feels as a leader.
“Especially now, I feel that weight much more. I mean, I'm setting the product strategy for our whole company. That's not something I do in a vacuum, by any means. I take a lot of feedback, and I make sure I'm aligned with the rest of the leadership team. That's certainly something where you don't want to whiff on setting the product strategy for your whole company…That's a new weight I feel, even though I own a smaller amount of product from a square footage landscape than I did in my previous role, the impact is much more direct.”
Lauren isn’t alone in feeling the weight of responsibility. Nearly every leader I’ve spoken with feels a heavy dose of duty to do an excellent job. There’s so much to consider — and so much you can get wrong.
There’s an enormous responsibility to use the money wisely, pinpoint the right strategy, and prioritize well. There's enormous pressure to make good decisions in a complex environment internally as well as externally. This macroeconomic environment heightens the complexity and the stakes.
Navigating uncertainty, ambiguity, and many moving parts make the job of leadership incredibly complex. If you ponder it for long, the complexity can feel overwhelming. Operating under these conditions while trying to make the best decisions for the employees, company and people who invested in you can take an emotional and mental toll.
As a leadership consultant, I work with leaders in the tech industry. Many of my clients are leaders in scaling startups. These kinds of challenging environments ratchet up the complexity. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank last week was another reminder of the pressure these leaders face.
Startup leaders who had plenty of money in the bank couldn’t access it. Next week’s payroll was jeopardy. Now the livelihoods of many people were at stake. It's not just the team though — it's their spouses, and their children. The circle could extend even further to parents or other family members who depend on those paychecks. Without a paycheck those people won't be able to pay their mortgages, their rent, childcare, healthcare, or car payments. This puts many people at risk for adverse outcomes.
This is not a hypothetical, I knew founders in this exact situation this weekend. The pressure they felt must have been immense. I too felt this weight as a COO of a scaling startup. I’ve talked about struggling with the fallout after an unpopular decision. The difficult feelings that accompany it like feeling misunderstood is one thing. A decision you get wrong that impacts the financial and emotional well-being employees is something totally different.
As a leader at a scaling startup the stakes were high. I didn’t face a bank collapse but there were other obstacles. If we got something wrong or made a poor choice, the livelihoods of 50+ people were at risk. This is what kept me up at night, made me turn decisions around and around in my head, making sure there wasn’t a piece of information that I missed. In some ways feeling that weight makes us take our jobs quite seriously. It certainly did for me. This is good. And, we have to find a way to carry the carry the responsibility without allowing it to overwhelm us.
I don’t have a magic wand to take away the heavy mental load that comes with being responsibility for the well-being of a company and its team. I wrote to you today not with answers but to help leaders know they’re not alone. It’s also a reminder to those of us not in the role that what looks simple from the outside, is far more complex than we imagine. It’s true the weight we carry can make us act in not great ways like trying to seize control (micromanage) or flop around in decision making. Still, we can’t underestimate how difficult it is or its impact on those who step into leadership. They need support, not scorn.
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