The Burden of Leadership

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Flashback to October 2015

So much is made of the thrills of leadership. So much so that, every now and then, I’ve spoken to women who don’t have leadership aspirations – and who feel like there is something wrong with them as a result.

We’re supposed to want to lead. Sheryl Sandberg tells us to Lean In, so we SHOULD be leaning in … no?

As the CEO of an organisation whose very mission is to inspire women to lead, I have to admit that I am sometimes guilty of falling into the ‘but leadership is FABULOUS!’ bandwagon.

And, of course, it is fabulous. It is challenging and inspiring and spine-tinglingly rewarding all in the same breath.

What we forget to acknowledge, sometimes, is that it can also be a giant pain in the arse.

Case in point:

I write this partway through school holidays, which I am lucky enough to take off to be with my children.

As per most school holidays I entered the break exhausted, and having inadvertently lost my energy and enthusiasm. It has taken me a full week to find them again.

I was bemoaning this quarterly flop with a friend. He said, “Gem, not many people have as much on their plate as you do. It’s normal. And you’ll come out of this funk. You always do”.

I agree with him on one front. I will come out of the funk, because I always do. But here is where I disagree. I don’t think I have more on my plate than the average leader or business owner. I think that this mental stress – and occasional physical exhaustion – may just be part of the leadership game.

It’s not like this all the time. But some of the time, it is.

To get past my tiredness, I have been shamelessly hoarding the pockets of time where parenting can take a temporary backseat, and devoting them to curling up and reading.

The book I have most enjoyed is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Note that ‘enjoyed’ is a massive understatement. I have caught myself breathing in the scent of its pages as an offering of gratitude for its existence.

Here is one of Gilbert’s gems – an insight she borrowed from writer Mark Manson.

Every career comes with its own shit sandwich. Each career can be wonderful, and inspiring, and draw on our natural strengths and passions, but there will always, ALWAYS, be something inherently crap about it.

I tested this theory out with some of my nearest and dearest, who happen to be leaders in their particular fields.

Greta Bradman, world-class opera singer (and world-class chick), tells me that performing gorgeous music around the world involves spending a lot of time far away from those she loves and cherishes the most.

Tom Cronin, one of the planet’s best-known meditation teachers, told me that his shit sandwich is finding the confidence to continuously self-promote his events, books, courses and offerings.

Ben Heard, leading eco-modernist, says his shit sandwich is dealing with people saying horrible things about him – even though they have never met him – because they feel challenged by his views and work.

I know these three people very well. They adore their careers. They feel blessed to do what they do for a living. But they, too, have shit sandwiches.

Here’s what the burden of leadership looks like in my world:

1.  Being called repeatedly whilst on leave to help my team members make decisions. I adore my team (another understatement), and the first sentence is always “I’m SO sorry to call you”, but it doesn’t stop the calls flying in. As much as I believe in empowering your team members, I know that ultimate responsibility sits with me.

2.  Experiencing moments of complete mental overload. Sometimes I feel like giving my team responsibility for making ALL THE DECISIONS and putting me in charge of, oh I don’t know, data entry. I know that I would reclaim my decision-making responsibility within 30 minutes, because I really love leading (and I really hate data entry), but the ability to put down the leadership hat and follow someone else would, at times, be a relief.

3.  Having the tough conversations with my team about our performance, or salary, or health, or family, or anything that is impeding our ability to be 100% happy and focussed at work. My team will tell you that I am rather bloody brilliant at having these conversations. It doesn’t mean they don’t drain me. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to take a deep breath and put aside the hundreds of other urgent tasks I need to do in order to focus purely on the team member in front of me.

4.  Responding to 200+ emails every day. Say no more.

And the burden of business ownership? For me:

1.  Waking up in a panic at 3am and thinking ‘holy crap! I need to fix our cash flow issues!’

2.  Waking up in a panic at 3am and churning over ALL THE THINGS I have to do

3.  Waking up in a panic at 3am and stressing about the enormous amount of money I need to give to someone called ATO. I don’t like him very much.

4.  Travelling. A lot. And missing my children as a result.

5.  Above all, realising that – on every single occasion – the buck stops with me. And, in fleeting moments, wishing that I could pass the buck on to others.

I am not complaining. Not at all.

I know that my shit sandwiches are accompanied by a veritable feast of delight, reward, excitement and autonomy, as well as the ability to innovate, decide, lead an incredible team, adapt, have an impact on the world and get great work done quickly and well.

And I really bloody love all these things. I wouldn’t give them up for all the champagne in Champagne.

But I do think that we need to be real about the shit sandwiches that come with our career choices. We need to expect them and accept them.

As Mark Manson puts it, we need to change the question.

Instead of asking ‘What do I love doing more than anything else in the world?’, we should instead ask ‘What do I love doing so much that I’m prepared to put up with its shit sandwich?’

Leading people has been the highlight of my career. It’s often the highlight of my day. And for those that are called, owning a business will stretch and reward you in ways you’ve never imagined.

As someone who believes that the world will be a better place when 50% of the most important decisions are made by women, I often implore women to speak up, step up and lead.

But let’s not glorify leadership or business ownership without also being aware of the tough road we’re embarking on. To usher women into career paths that are supposedly lined with gold is to set them up for disappointment and potentially failure.

Leading and owning a business are brilliant paths to choose. But they’re also rocky, rough and steep. At times you’ll wish others are walking the path for you. But you won’t be able to take off your hiking boots. Ever. It’s what you sign up for. And it’s time to be honest about this.


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