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Opinion: Why too many executives are miserable

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The executive had truly made it. He was the head of a large, national organization that was experiencing steady growth. He was the third generation of the family-owned business, and he knew every corner of the company and the market. He was making more money than his grandfather, the founder of the business, would ever have dreamed about making.

He had climbed the mountain and made it to the top.

On this particular day, he was sitting on a private beach looking out at the ocean. He was supposed to be relaxing, but he found himself thinking about work. He thought about all the things that needed to be done and all the hours he would have to work to catch up when he got back. Instead of feeling the sun, he felt the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders. While the company was successful, he had been around long enough to know that poor decisions could change it all very quickly. It was a lot to take in.

This incredibly successful business executive was miserable.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too common. It starts with a person at work learning their job. The learning is challenging, but exciting. As the person learns their job, they start to get good at it and so they are given more responsibilities. These responsibilities increase to the point where the person needs more people to help them to get everything done. The result is often an executive who has their hand in everything that happens directly to the people around them, and this is when they really lose control. Their success is dependent on how hard they work.

They have no control of their time. They are in meetings all day, every day. They don't have time to think or to plan. They don't enjoy the work because the work is running them. People around them constantly demand their time, which they do their best to oblige, requiring that they take work home to perform during late evenings, early mornings or on weekends. They feel trapped and burnt out. One executive described their life to me as, "I feel lonely, even though I'm surrounded by people every day.”

I call it “executive quicksand.”

The problem with executive quicksand is that its impact isn't limited to the executive. When executives lose control of their own lives, they begin to fall short on how they serve the people around them, which impacts the organization. They fail to be the leaders that they could be and fall into the trappings of the day to day demands for their time. More times than not, if you look at struggling companies, you will find struggling executives at the top. The perception is often that the executive is struggling because the company struggles, but I find the opposite is often true. The company struggles because its top leaders can't be the leaders that their people need them to be.

Quicksand leaders are stuck in the paradigm that success depends on them. Leaders escape the quicksand when they realize their success depends on their ability to rely on others.

One of the most common skills that supervisors struggle with is delegating tasks. A supervisor is probably pretty good at what they do, so they struggle at letting someone else do the job, especially when they know that they will make mistakes. Good managers go through a transformation throughout their management career.

They start by admitting to themselves that it would be great to get some things off their plate. With this thought in mind, they start to delegate tasks to others and have a mixture of successes and failures. The successes are enough to bring the manager up to the next level, where they realize that other people might be pretty good at taking things off their plate. This accelerates to the next level, where the manager discovers some people might be better at doing some of the things that were originally on their own plate.

This is a humbling and powerful insight. For every task that you do at work, there is someone out there that can do it better than you can. A manager who watches an employee be more successful in their job than the manager could ever be is a transformational experience. The manager starts to realize the secret to getting out of the quicksand. It's not your plate!

The secret to getting out of the quicksand is to realize that the primary job of a manager is not to manage processes, but rather to manage people. A great team doesn't make the executive successful because they want the executive to succeed. The great executive supports and challenges the team to let them feel the success themselves.

Fortunately, this realization hit our friend on the beach. He realized that to escape the quicksand, he needed to stop struggling and let his team help him. He met with his direct reports, gave them clear roles and then offered his support, coaching and encouragement. His team describes it as, "He got out of our way.”

The results were dramatic for both the executive and his company. Not only did the executive start to enjoy what he did, but the people around him started to enjoy their work as well. This led to a significant acceleration in growth for the company because it turns out that when people enjoy their work, they do it better.

If you are an executive and you are in the quicksand, stop struggling and ask your people to get you out. They will step up and find great joy and prosperity in the act.

Don Harkey is the owner and CEO of People Centric Consulting Group. He can be reached at


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