The Existential Realities of Leadership

In the past week, I’ve had conversations with three amazing leaders I coach. They all used the same word to describe their current reality – “overwhelmed.” I totally get it. We all feel that from time to time. The question is, “What are you going to do about it?”

“What are you going to do about it?” sets up an existential choice for all of us – leaders especially. In every situation, whether we are trying to solve a problem or overcome a challenge, when things get hard, we always have three options: we can turn back. We can stop in our tracks and spin. Or we can choose to move forward – to push beyond the edge. These three choices are existential realities. We are both free and responsible to make our choice in every circumstance.

A powerful lesson in this existential reality for me came early in a 15 mile race up and over Hope Pass in the Colorado Rockies on day two of the six-day TransRockies Run. The first 5 miles of this day’s race are straight up. On my way to the top of Hope Pass at 12,600’ a friend passed me and told me I had to keep going because they’d taken down the start line – “No turning back!” Now I knew I couldn’t just stop; I was in the middle of nowhere in the Rockies. I had to keep going. Of the three options I had, only one made sense. So I came up with a mantra and said it to myself to keep me moving forward up and over Hope Pass and to the finish line.

As leaders we face these same three choices when we are feeling overwhelmed. And, there is only one smart choice – keep going. The are two choices have negative consequences.

Now if you’re thinking that the moral of the story is, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” you’re wrong!

Yes, keep going. And, if you know you’ve got a long way to go to reach the top or make it to the finish line, then it’s on you to be prepared to keep going. Design your experience, whether running or leading a team so that you minimize those moments of overwhelm. I carry water and nutrition on long runs. And, I know there are aid stations along the way of organized races.

It’s up to you to build in your own aid stations – daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly. What are the rituals and practices that will keep overwhelm at bay? Do you need to ensure there are 10-15 breaks between meetings? Do you need to arrange it so you only check email once or twice a day? Do you need to get better at delegating? Do you need to carve out time to think about the next quarter or next year? Do you need to take a daily walk around the building? Do you need to practice breathing or some form of meditation every day?

Now you’re thinking, “Greg, so much is not in my control. I’m just going along.” So, A, Really? I bet that’s not true. And B, What is in your control? Can you think more carefully to put up better boundaries and say “no” to more things that aren’t moving your forward? Can you be in charge of your calendar? Throwing up your hands and saying you’ve little to no control over your daily experience is akin to stopping in your tracks and sitting and spinning in overwhelm. No turning back. Get up. Take a breath. Go forward. Going forward will move you out of your comfort zone. That’s a good thing.

If you need a mantra to get you through it, borrow mine: “Go to the edge. Push farther. Repeat.” That’s the only we way we finish the race.