It occurred to me the other month that almost every executive leader I know has faced a meltdown at some point in their leadership. Whether it was the nonprofit executive who wept at the daunting task of rebuilding her organization’s entire staff (for like, the 10th time), the small business owner being harassed and taken to court due to a business partnership gone sour, or a financial faux pas leaving the leader of a firm to manage an embarrassing deficit—shit happens. At some point in our human journeys, the systems, pressure, responsibilities, financial anxiety and just sheer workload become too much for people to take, making it impossible for us to hold it all together.
In fact, I’m pretty convinced that, until you’ve had a meltdown, (or two, or three) you haven’t yet experienced the true weight of executive leadership. It’s almost like it’s a necessary hazing for effective leadership. But is it? Why do meltdowns happen? To understand them, let’s look at a bit of neuroscience.
The Neuroscience of a Meltdown
Think resilience. The brain is designed to be self-regulating and energy efficient, and seeks a state of balance. When we are too stressed and our brains are on overload, as I wrote about in “Stress and the Leadership Brain,” we get large releases of norepinephrine and dopamine, the two main chemicals that balance out the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our higher executive functions. And we get releases of cortisol, an inflammatory, stress-induced hormone. As a result, the prefrontal cortex gets knocked out of balance, if you will, resulting in symptoms like lack of empathy, inability to regulate impulses, foggy thinking, poor decision-making and poor memory. In short, our brain’s natural ability to regulate gets thrown off because it is out of balance chemically. Hence, the breakdowns and inability to humanly manage it all. Literally, you are overloaded and your regulating mechanisms are compromised. So, what can you do to keep your head above water and prevent a meltdown?
1. Share power.
We usually think about leadership as one captain solely responsible for where a ship will sail. The lone ranger paving the way. By not sharing power, you hold on to more than you can perhaps manage. Your own need to control starts to actually hamper you. Trust me—I’ve been one of those leaders who needed to have personal oversight of everything. Sharing power frees your brain up to take on other things, and builds a sense of buy-in and accountability to results. Of course, the art of this for any leader is figuring out how much to let go and share and how much to retain continued oversight. This is a balance that can only be achieved with your willingness to accept the inevitable mistakes people around you might make in your absence, and trusting that lessons will be learned from those mistakes. Sharing, coupled with a growth mindset of learning from trial and error, is a crucial element in helping leaders manage stress that can lead to meltdowns.
2. Be more vulnerable.
“I love being vulnerable, because it’ so comfortable and pleasing to the soul and gets you what you want,” said NO ONE EVER. As tough as vulnerability can feel in our culture, where it is often perceived as weakness, it’s a fallacy of leadership that you as the leader have to always solve for everything. Actually, the more you can admit you don’t know HOW to do something, the more it will free you from obligating yourself to fix it. And that means more brain space for other things (remember what we’re going for here—realistic goals and workloads that don’t send your brain into unhealthy overdrive). It will also give other team members the opportunity to chime in with their expertise. By simply saying “I don’t know” and showing a little vulnerability, you invite in new ideas, perspectives and perhaps a collective way of finding solutions to a problem vs. being the lone ranger needing to fix it. (Note lone ranger reference now twice in this post.)
3. Put a stake in the ground.
Remember that old game where a stake with ribbons attached is driven into the ground, and each child would get ahold of a piece of ribbon and frolic around the stake and weave between one another creating a sort of braid around the stake? That’s what I mean here. Defining a stake means that you and your leaders are passionately committed to “dancing around” it and holding it in place. For example, the stake could be quality. It could be integrity. It could be creating community. Whatever you define the stake to be, clarify what it is for your company, or any project, or collaboration. It will help you and your team keep focused so you don’t veer off and start leading into things that do not relate back to the stake, thereby overloading your plate with things other thank the stake, no pun intended.
4. Have someone to talk to.
Getting outside support and having someone to talk with on a regular basis can also help you manage overload. Becoming more present to emotions, naming them, feeing them, creates greater integration and resilience. We are constantly regulating one another’s nervous systems. Ever talk with a person suffering from extreme anxiety and find yourself leaving the conversation feeling anxious wanting to ventilate into a paper bag? Ever come across someone who is as calm as a lake and, next thing you know, you get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside and feel the calmness within you? (This has to do with a concept called sense of self, but that topic is for another post.) So if you are on overload, find calming people to talk with—those whose energy can help to have a positive regulatory effect on your nervous system is key.
5. Invest in people and grow the leadership around you.
Leaders fill gaps. And well, when the going gets tough and things start slipping through your leadership cracks, you will be thankful there are people around you who have the leadership skills to fill in those cracks. If you are just surrounded by followers of your word, you will be overwhelmed—all the time. Investing in growing leadership capabilities of those around you and giving up some of your power can better ensure gaps are filled when shit hits the fan. And I promise you this—shit WILL hit the fan. Investment means taking time to coach and mentor people in your organization. If you don’t have the time, hire external coaches, send your team members to a good quality leadership immersion program, or give them more responsibilities and coach them to succeed. Your biggest assets are your people. Having strong people around you will help you manage the load better.
What did you learn from your leadership meltdown? If you had to do it all over again, what advice would you give?