Leading Naked: How Calling The Shots In Business Can Strip Us Down, Revealing Our Best Self

Every top leader over the age of 40 experiences a unique confluence of pressures that can become moderately to extremely troubling. These pressures cause a stripping away of old (familiar) patterns that are no longer effective, thus leaving the leader in an unfamiliar, lonely and anxious space.

The greatest source of our suffering is unquestioned identification with our personality patterns. Meaning, the patterns created by our subconscious are useful tools. They provide a way for us to complete many repetitive activities without having to sink deep into analysis. In other words, we don’t have to remind ourselves how to tie our shoe or where to start with the razor on our face. The trouble is we often give the subconscious too much reign when it comes to more complex, unfolding experiences in life and business.

As unsettling as this space can be, it is made worse when the leader is not consciously aware this is happening to them. The disruptive confluence is made up of three distinct, yet interrelated factors:

  1. Exponentially increasing pressure to keep the organization we lead healthy, relevant, and profitable in rapidly changing market conditions
  2. Balancing energy and time to attend to changing personal needs and desires outside of the workplace
  3. Unattended evolution of the executives inner-landscape (consciously and subconsciously) that erodes their sense of well-being and effective engagement

Let’s take these one at a time.


Increasing Organizational Pressure

We’ve all heard statements like, if the aviation industry had kept pace with the computer industry, we’d be able to fly around the world in one minute for $1 (or something like that). The point is, businesses are being increasingly squeezed by political and regulatory pressures that make profits harder to generate. In addition, advancements in automation and customer supply chain innovation (Amazon) threaten to dramatically shift staffing models and response to customer demand. Just this past month, three of my executive development clients (top leaders and owners) have returned from national industry meetings wondering how they are going to synthesize all the changes coming quickly down the pipe and still deliver a profit to key stake holders. And, here’s the kicker–they are expected to deal with all these impending shifts without showing any fear and while comforting the fretful leaders around them.

When trying to innovate around these changing market conditions, leaders find that only about 3 out of 10 of their direct reports have the ability and/or inclination to truly tackle the threats to future business success. Instead they encounter foot-dragging, blame shifting and fearful hand-wringing. This leaves top leaders in the exhausting place of feeling its mostly up to them. They feel abandoned and villainized – like they’re the ones “cancelling summer camp.”


Balancing Energy and Time

The top leaders I work with–most between 40-60 years of age–struggle in secret with fatigue and guilt. They fear they are missing important milestones with their spouse, children, and/or grandchildren. They are at stages of life where things outside the workplace are also changing fast. Spouses and life-partners have, in some cases, sacrificed alongside the top leader for 20 or 30 years and they are also tired and ready for things to change. Most leaders have adopted the strategy of not bringing work stress home, which in some ways may be wise, but can also increase their sense of loneliness and isolation.

Health issues resulting from their hard-driving way of life can also begin to show up. The unyielding face of mortality comes closer into view with increasing regularity. Sleep is elusive. Energy needed to keep pace with the “monster” they’ve created is no longer as accessible, but they can’t let that show. Work that used to feel easy in their 30s and 40s now takes more effort. That “steel-trap” mind once epic in problem solving and remembering all the details now plays hide and seek in the fog of their mind. Thoughts of giving up (that once were rare) now show up more often and they see themselves making mistakes they never used to make. It’s troubling to say the least.


Unattended Evolution

The audacious ego of top leaders played a vital role in their success. They have no idea how to apply this essential part of their psyche that caused them to push through every obstacle and outwork everyone else to the larger story unfolding in and around them. Many leaders I work with share with me (almost in hushed tones, like it’s a dirty secret) that they have heard the echo of hopes and desires that are fundamentally different than what they’re used to hearing. They are beginning to wonder if this one-track pursuit of building and leading a successful business is enough. Like Jack Nicholson famously asked in the movie, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

The truth is, leaders today are different people than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Therefore, it is perfectly normal to want different things…or at the very least, to want the same things for different reasons. But the demanding path they find themselves on seems to make no room to explore those questions. The heart says, This is just not fun anymore! The ego says, What does that matter…focus on the next hill in front of you or you will fail…and then what good are you?

Well, what the ego either can’t know or doesn’t care about is that those secret hopes and desires, when attended to, can shift how the leader is able to contribute. The answer to the riddle comes from this evolution and allows the leader to bring their best self to the cause and to the people they care so much about.

This confluence of vocational/life pressures, in itself, is not necessarily harmful. Rather it is the leader’s isolation and cognitive dissonance that leads to private suffering that strips away the wonderful sense of well-being and contribution attainable in the second half of life.

The solution is to be more consciously aware of and attuned to the “currents” that push and pull us. This life-giving balance can fill us–and fellow travelers who can hear us deeply enough–to invite our larger, emerging self, to lead a more present and impactful life every day.

The greatest cause of our suffering is unquestioned identification with our personality patterns. The ego isn’t the bad self. It’s just the small self. When we can subordinate the ego to our larger, emerging self, allow the questions and the longing to breathe, we can experience true fulfillment of a life well lived and a business well built.

Leading naked isn’t always comfortable but top leaders who embrace it will flourish now, and in the days ahead.