Why Passion and Drive Can Destroy Good Leaders

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 11:28 AM EDT

Passion and Drive can Destroy LeadersExecutives and business leaders are notoriously passionate about their work, driven to succeed at all costs. That's fine, but it has a dark side, a trap that highly-dedicated professionals fall into all too often. Work becomes their life. Not only is that unhealthy, but sooner or later it catches up with them, actually hindering their ability to succeed.

We all struggle with work-life balance. We talk about it, worry about it, but achieving it, that's another matter. These days, we're all under pressure to be on 24-7. We're constantly being asked to do more with less, deliver results with fewer resources. The truth is that it's never been more challenging to keep work from becoming our life.

But for top executives and business leaders, the problem is actually far worse. There are two reasons for that.

  1. For all their power, perks, and pay packages, leaders carry a heavy burden of responsibility. Their stress level is higher. They often put way too much pressure on themselves, to the point where failure becomes something to avoid at all cost. For some, failure becomes something they just can't live with.
  2. It's all too easy to get drawn in by the attention, the admiration, the ego boost. At work, they're kings and queens. At home, they're just another spouse, parent, or friend. Many of them actually feel more competent, more comfortable, even more safe, at work than at home. That's the attraction of the dark side.
So we call ourselves workaholics, say our work is our lives. We think of ourselves as winners, special, above the masses of ordinary people. It sounds so grandiose, and that's exactly what it is, a grandiose self-image that can never be fulfilled. A trap.

As for the effect all that has on our ability to perform effectively as leaders, it has a discrete, negative impact on a number of key leadership attributes:

  • Empathy and humility. Lack of empathy for your own mistakes and failures tends to transfer to others. If you can't feel empathy for yourself, you can't feel empathy for those you lead. And knowing that you're human, just like everyone else, is what humility is all about. Empathy and humility are key leadership traits.
  • Perspective and objectivity. We live in highly complex and competitive times. When tough issues arise, as they inevitably do, leaders need to be able to disengage, to retreat to a place where they feel safe from all that, a place where they can achieve some level of perspective and objectivity.
  • Judgment. The biggest problem with grandiose ego is that it fools you into thinking you have to have all the answers. And while you'd never consciously admit to thinking you're always right, deep inside, you have a need to be just that. That impairs your judgment. I've seen it time and again; it's sad to watch once successful entrepreneurs and executives make bad calls because they stop asking questions and listening to others. Worst case, they can self-destruct and take the whole company down with them.
  • Confidence. An oversized ego turns confidence into arrogance. Sure, people like Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs managed to get away with being arrogant, but I would argue that Gates and Jobs eventually grew up. Ellison, I'm not so sure. But for the rest of us, it's irritating, annoying, and hinders our ability to work effectively with, and yes, lead others.
  • Longevity. To be a great leader, you've got to be able to hang in there, to be around long enough to see the fruits of your labor. You've got to have stick-with-it-ness, the ability to survive the inevitable hurdles and challenges of a highly competitive business world. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and you've got to pace yourself to last.
Bottom line. A healthy ego is a good thing. Self-confidence is a good thing. Passion and dedication are good things. But when you stop thinking of yourself as an ordinary person, when you no longer believe that there are more important things in life than succeeding at work, that will catch up with you, sooner or later. Guaranteed.

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Image CC 2.0 courtesy Flickr user Image Editor