3 signs that you’re experiencing leadership overload and what to do about it.
What should I do?
There’s no doubt that the world feels more out of control than usual. Every time we pause for a breath something else seems to happen that throws us off kilter. From the easing of COVID restrictions we then lurched into war in Europe, which fuelled an energy crisis, rampant inflation, and then ever-increasing cost-of-living pressures. Mixed then with further societal and economic uncertainty, there’s no surprise that most people in leadership roles are feeling overwhelmed.
Unsure what to do next, they feel the pressure of people inside and outside of work are looking to them for certainty and security. They are asked tough questions and expected to have an answer. But when there are no right answers to the many challenges facing people in leadership roles, they struggle to figure out what they should do tomorrow let alone into the future.
Uncertainty = Overload
Significant research exists to support that the worst psychological state humans can live in is uncertainty. In fact research published in Nature Communications reveals that as humans, rather than live with uncertainty, much prefer to know that a bad thing is going to happen rather than be left guessing.
With all that’s happed and continues to be happening in the world, it’s my view that the base line level of uncertainty that we are living with has increased significantly. Things have become far less predictable with our tried and trusted approaches to navigating complexity no longer feeling sufficient. The impact of this is that all of us, especially those in leadership roles, are having to apply far more mental energy to making decisions. The impact is that the level of uncertainty we are all living with is resulting in cognitive overload.
Overload = Exhaustion
As the brain is the most energy consuming organ in the body, the impact of this overload is perpetual feeling of exhaustion. That is, as we’re all having to think more about what we should do, we’re using far more energy that we usually would as our brains are required to work harder each day. The impact of this is that the more energy we use for everyday decisions, the less energy we have to make decisions and therefore the less effective we are.
Exhaustion = Filtering
To cope with the exhaustion, we naturally start to filter things out. We stop listening to views that contradict our opinions. We ignore some difficult decisions or topics to focus on that which we perceive may be more straightforward. As this filtering is unconscious however, we miss that we are in fact restricting our perspective and thus potentially eliminating opinions or data that might help us to better navigate the very complexity that is creating the uncertainty we’re trying to escape.
Easing the Overwhelm
Caught in such a difficult cycle there are a few simple things that every person in a leadership role can do to preserve their mental energy, and then apply this more intelligently as they seek to navigate uncertainty.
1. Eliminate the Noise – whether deliberately or not, we’ve created a society that continually bombards us with information. Although there are some nuggets of value in this information, much is just noise. When we become conscious of this noise, we can turn it off. Simple examples I’ve heard from many is that they turn off social media, they restrict the news they watch, and they become ruthless in how the manage email and messages. In summary, they consciously eliminate anything which creates noise and consumes energy without value.
2. Be intentional – humans have been designed to spend most of our lives relying on our inbuilt autopilot. Whilst this level of unconscious behaviour is useful for many menial tasks, when we get to the more important things, we need to switch autopilot off and put our hands back onto the controls. This means being intentional with how we want to invest our time and energy. For example, asking ourselves why we are doing one task over another, ensuring that our energy is first invested in that which will deliver the greatest benefit. Being intentional also means recognising how our energy flows during the day and making sure we’re doing the right things at the right times. For example, if our energy is at its highest for highly complex tasks first thing in the morning, then this is exactly when we should schedule to do these tasks.
3. Focus on value not volume – in amongst the complexity and noise it’s easy to become purely task focused. Just trying to plough through the to-do list however can cause us to lose perspective on the real impact we’re trying to have and the value we’re trying to create. For example, I’ve seen many people in leadership roles become slaves to their to-do lists when they’re overwhelmed. This stops them getting really focused on what their most critical priorities are which will allow them to maximise their impact and the value they create.
Easing the load
As much as I hate to admit it, I struggle to believe that in our near future the world is going to become less complex. As I stated in my book, The Great Man is Dead, the interplay of the mega trends of technology, geopolitics and climate change are going to keep levels of uncertainty at a high.
To ease the load, those in leadership roles have to eliminate the noise, be intentional with how they use their time and energy, and they have to focus on value not volume. And through these three simple actions they’ll not only be able to stay sane, but they’ll also maximise their impact whilst achieving the fulfilment they’re seeking.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed why not arrange a 30min call with Rob to understand how you can ease the load and regain focus on that which will help you become a Purposeful Leader.