A recent discussion reminded me that I should jot down some thoughts regarding leader overwhelm (def. bury or drown beneath a huge mass). I have experienced this twice in my career and the effects can be debilitating. For me and other leaders I have known, it leads to an inability to act. One just sits there as if in a trance, unable to move on or wanting to quit. Followers will forgive you for making a wrong decision, but they don’t forgive you not making one. That’s why avoiding this condition is so important.
What is this condition, really? First, I need to clarify that I am looking at organizational overwhelm, i.e., being submerged under the problems in the company that leaders are supposed to be solving. For me, it is a condition of the mind in which you have reached overload. You have tried pushing harder, likely several times, but still sense that things are not getting better. So you throw in the towel on some level because you don’t know what else to do.
I can remember coming home from work many years ago and wondering, “why aren’t things getting better? I believe I am doing all the right things, but conditions aren’t changing”. Well, part of this is the reality that for each problem that you solve, a new one becomes visible and problems never end. After all, we are managing human systems, and they spin off problems faster than one can solve them.
Too many open tasks
Overwhelm is not too many cycles or tasks, but too many that remain open. It is my experience that leaders differ in terms of how many tasks they can confront at any one time, but that the number of cycles in front of them doesn’t really change. They have a certain level of tasks they can see and that number always remains the same. It is almost like a leader’s level of metabolism. Thus, with any given leader, once a task is completed or a problem solved, he will go find another one. There is a comfort band for every leader. Well, if that is so, then how do they become overwhelmed?
In my experience, there are two sources:
- Fatigue: Going at a fast pace for too long a period and you shut down. Meaning, you can’t take on any more, you sit in that trance. If you don’t do so yourself, then your body will shut you down. I had one client who simply dropped like a stone one day in his office. Going too hard, too long. What keeps you out of this is a sense of progress. If you feel as if you are getting tasks done and problems solved, then the discovery/arrival of new problems won’t overwhelm you. But if not, then the additional problems lead to overwhelm. The cure for this is good self-management. Maintain balance in your life, get exercise, take a walk outside and look at the horizon to broaden your perspective. Better yet, take a few days off.
- Confusion: Not knowing can drain you rapidly. When you can’t identify the cause of a problem that keeps re-occurring, frustration mounts. In my experience, leaders have a mental mechanism to wall off too much of what they can’t understand. They literally don’t see it. This explains why when we do organizational assessments using a survey instrument completed by managers, employees and the CEO, virtually every time the CEO sees the polar opposite of what others see. That is, if the staff sees the earth as round, the CEO sees it as flat. This contributes to the CEO using the mental mechanism of literally not seeing something as a means of handling the fact that there is too much to see and handle already. This can be a serious threat to the leader whose followers are asking themselves, “why doesn’t he/she get it?”.
Avoiding leader overwhelm
There are some practices that can help you stay out of overwhelm. Here are some tips:
- Maintain a complete list of your tasks in one place. Don’t try to keep them in your head as you will continually cycle through them which leads to mental fatigue.
- Prioritize your to do list. I put them in 3 categories: now, next, when I can. I simply assign them a #1,2 or 3.
- Work the list in priority order. Be disciplined to work your #1’s before going on to #2’s or taking on something new that comes in. Cross these off or highlight when complete. That simple action of physically acknowledging that a task is done and off the list can prevent fatigue.
- If confusion sets in, invest in a good organizational or internal assessment. I have repeatedly found that a real cure for leadership overwhelm is a sound internal assessment. Why? An assessment will uncover the seen and the unseen problems and help the leader prioritize them. With a clear list of problems in hand, the CEO can work with her team to help spot what she is not seeing and identify the causal factors. Understanding the causes, the team and/or CEO can identify solutions and plan the steps to implement them.