As Printed in the Harvard Business Review Blog on September 9, 2015
Successful leaders keep their promises. They take their responsibilities to others seriously, and, when necessary, they put aside their own needs for the good of the organization. As Simon Sinek put it in his bestselling book, Leaders EatLast: “Leaders are the ones willing to give up something of their own for us—their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate…Unless someone is willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of others to earn their place in the hierarchy, they aren’t really ‘alpha material.’”
In my firm’s work with and analysis of more than 1,000 senior executives around the world, we’ve found that this description is only half right. Of course leaders sacrifice aspects of their personal lives at times; that’s the price of admission in today’s competitive work environment. But those who subjugate their own personal needs for healthful diet and exercise, sleep and recreation, personal connections, professional development, cultural enrichment, and community engagement over five, ten or 20 years eventually succumb to a phenomenon we refer to as brownout—the graduated loss of energy, focus, and passion, which ultimately diminishes their success.
In contrast to burnout, where someone is obviously unable to function successfully, brownout is often imperceptible to outsiders—yet our observations indicate that it affects a much larger percentage of the executive population. Let me give you an example. During my first private conversation with “Steve,” the CEO of a top mid-sized law firm, he surprised me with a confession: “Mike,” he said, “I have to share something with you that I really can’t tell anyone else. I’m 39 years old and I’m running a successful firm. My client work is stimulating and challenging. I make close to a million dollars a year, and I have a wonderful wife and a five-year-old son. But I haven’t slept more than four hours a night in over three weeks. It’s been ten days since I last saw my son awake. I’m completely overwhelmed by work. We’re meeting in this conference room because my office is piled floor to ceiling with files. There is really important stuff that I know I’m not dealing with because of how fast new things come in. Sometimes it gets so bad that I find myself actually hoping I’ll have a heart attack. At least it would be an honorable way out.”
Steve was an extreme example, of course. But his story illustrates the profound stress facing leaders who focus too heavily on their responsibilities to others. After a time, the selfless behavior that made them successful in their early careers ends up impairing their long-term productivity, effectiveness, and well-being. They can find themselves becoming the highly promoted senior executives that no young professionals want to emulate.
In our work, we’ve found that today’s superstar leaders supplement their commitment to focusing on others with another, equally important skill: keeping promises to themselves. What are some examples of promises you might make?
The idea is to commit to activities that will make you feel better, increase your energy, stimulate your mind, and enrich your spirit. This isn’t self-indulgence. When you make and keep promises to self, you become a better, more fully realized version of yourself, which benefits not only you but everyone around you and your organization. You also become a true role model for those following you up the ranks.
Nice idea, you may say, but what about all my responsibilities, my crazy boss, my needy team and customers? Clients will, of course, have to adjust when they realize you are no longer available to take phone calls at every hour of the day or night. Colleagues will need to reset their expectations when they learn that you’re no longer willing to take on more projects or serve on yet another committee. But we hear from executives who have tried this tactic that key stakeholders quickly come to respect and honor their new way of living and working, since it so clearly improves their performance.
Inertia, procrastination, the power of habit, and the fear of others’ judgments can also make it difficult to make and keep promises to yourself. Clinical workaholics might find it impossible without professional psychological support. But we advise people to start by making one small but exceptionally meaningful promise to themselves—and to stick to it with 100% integrity. For example, if you decide that more time with family is most important to you, you might commit to eating dinner together at home three times a week for the next two weeks. And, if you successfully keep that promise, it should give you the confidence to try another: you might commit to walk for a half-hour every weekday, or to sharpen your presentation skills by tackling a public speaking course.
Everyone knows the customer service principle “underpromise and overdeliver.” Treat promises to yourself in the same way. Be realistic about what you can achieve and develop a plan for carrying it out.
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