Updated: Nov 4, 2021
When you lead in an organization, it is a safe bet that sooner or later you will sweat over something – and I’m not talking about the small stuff. When that happens, leaders tend to fall into two camps – those who stuff the feelings of overwhelm, and try not to let anyone (least of all themselves) realize what’s happening, out of fear of appearing incapable. The second camp not only show their overwhelm, they are darned proud of it, and flaunt it.
However, there is a quiet, third camp – those that rarely get overwhelmed by bog or small things, and if they do, it is fleeting. If you believe this is unlikely, then you’ll be surprised to learn that this third category of leaders have higher performance, more sustainable growth, and greater engagement than any other. They not only exist – they’re killing it! That’s the real reason leaders simply can’t afford to sweat – it’s too costly.
Here’s what leaders who don’t sweat or succumb to overwhelm recognize that the rest of us need to learn:
Overwhelm is contagious. When a leader is overwhelmed – regardless of whether they stuff or flaunt it – they react differently than they would if they were calm and balanced. This is true at any level of an organization, but the actions and communication from leadership has a more immediate impact. Overwhelmed individuals are quick to irritation. They are forgetful and often contradict themselves. They fail to communicate effectively – often not responding to direct communications in a timely fashion. Their own productivity drops, and their resiliency is diminished. All of this creates a ripple effect within a team, where the members lose confidence in the process and each other. Many will quit at the earliest opportunity of the overwhelm becomes a pattern.
Overwhelm is repulsive.This is the unvarnished truth in a society that currently seems to applaud one another for our overwhelm and burnout – as if it was a badge of honor. The truth is, no one wants to be around someone who is in crisis mode for too long. We cringe to see anyone in pain, and naturally search for a remedy. Although many of us might be willing to be supportive and helpful for the momentary overwhelm, when it becomes a chronic condition, it is almost impossible to withstand without catching the contagion (see #1). The best approach when overwhelm sets in is to pause everything, identify the cause and remedy, then reset and reframe immediately.
Overwhelm is a choice. When we are overwhelmed, it is because we are temporarily blinded by what feels like an impossible set of demands with no clear way out. Leaders who manage not to sweat much of anything have achieved a powerful perspective. They understand that they are in control of which thought trains – positive or negative – they elect to pursue. In any situation, they quickly move out of the problem and into possible solutions. Additionally, they recognize that nothing is permanent, even failure. They remain focused on their ultimate vision. This doesn’t mean they accept the unacceptable – however, they do accept ultimate responsibility for their intentions and their outcomes.
Overwhelm is attached to the idea of scarcity. At the root of burnout and overwhelm is a limiting belief that either we are not enough (to handle the situation) or there is not enough (time, resources or support). Not being or having enough is the foundation of the scarcity. The opposite of scarcity is abundance – when there is more than enough of everything. Leaders who don’t sweat are constantly scanning for opportunities for growth, connection, innovation and impact. Instead of constricting and conserving, they are expanding and evolving. Rather than deal in absolutes, they are in a flow, recognizing that when one opportunity closes, a new channel opens for them to explore.
Overwhelm is narcissism. This might seem harsh if you are in the middle of it, but hear me out. Being overwhelmed puts an unhealthy ego at the helm. When we are overwhelmed, we are terrified of losing something, or not getting something, we feel is vital to our survival. The definition of narcissism is self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects – which is precisely what happens in overwhelm. The resulting behaviors are those of selfishness, entitlement, low empathy, and/or a need for recognition. The result is either #1 or #2 – those around the leader will catch the overwhelm or be repulsed by it, depending on the health of their own ego.
When leaders understand the true nature of overwhelm and how to avoid falling into its trap, then they are better able to inspire others, hold their vision, and remain resilient in the face of challenges that could easily overwhelm them – if they claim a fresh perspective.