The dark side of leadership (and how to avoid it)

What does a successful leader look like? Most people would say that successful leaders:

  • Are charismatic and draw people in
  • Improve the lives of their benefactors
  • Are influential
  • Work hard on the causes they care about
  • Travel often to connect with other leaders

And of course, many – probably even most – successful leaders are all of the above.

But there is a dark side to leadership too, one that very few leaders ever admit to themselves, let alone the general public. In my experience personally and as a consultant to top student, government, and non-profit leaders around the world, the vast majority of leaders also struggle with one or all of the following:

  • Exhaustion from working too hard for too long
  • Fear that their success will not last or amount to all that much
  • Loneliness because they spend too much time working, generally at the expense of important personal relationships
  • Insecurity because they focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s right
  • Questioning whether or not what they have sacrificed for success was actually worth it


If you can relate to any/all of the above, don’t worry, it’s not just you. More leaders than you would ever believe feel like you feel.

So let me say this bluntly because very few leaders or leadership experts will: if you are not careful, leadership will destroy you. If your success grows unchecked, the demands of leadership will take up increasing amounts of time, energy and focus, leaving you with very little for yourself and your loved ones.

But there is hope. By making a few changes, you can minimize the downside of leadership without sacrificing the quality of your work.

3 strategies to prevent leadership from destroying you

Rebel against the use of exhaustion as a status symbol. Exhaustion has become a status symbol in our society. The general mentality is that if your calendar isn’t full, and if you aren’t way behind on sleep, you’re not working hard enough. On the flip side, if you’re booked solid for weeks and are pulling your third all-nighter of the month it is generally assumed that you are successful and important.

The reality though is that exhaustion is not a marker of success.  Frequently feeling exhausted from work is an indicator that you don’t love yourself well enough to take good care of your physical and mental health. 

Instead of packing every single free moment with work chill out and do something fun. Do it for you.  The strategy that I use: I schedule one night a week as “Jason night” and during that night I do something purely for myself.

Get good at saying no. One of the most efficient ways to become successful is to start saying, “yes” more often. I’ve seen people in all walks of life use this strategy to improve themselves and their communities.

But if you say “yes” too much, you’ll end up overextended and your focus will stray from your work.

The trick is to get good at saying “no” to commitments that:

  • You can’t keep
  • You aren’t enthusiastic about
  • Encroach on your personal time
  • Do not generate significant value for you or the other people involved

So, how do you say “no”? The most efficient way is simply to look the person in the eye and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” If that’s not possible (and often it’s not, especially if it’s your boss) explain why it’s not possible and then offer to help find someone who can fulfill the requirement for you.

And one thing to keep in mind: we all have people in our lives who we hang out with because we feel bad for them and don’t want to hurt them by saying “no”. In the long run, we do more harm than good by pitying these people so much that we give them our attention. Next time you’re approached to hang out with someone whose company you don’t actually enjoy, try saying “no” instead of giving them a pity hang out.

Keep track of your successes. The vast majority of the leaders I’ve worked with naturally spend more time focusing on what’s wrong than what’s right. Seeing what’s wrong allows them to identify problems and improve systems. While this focus is productive in moderation, unchecked it becomes toxic and create the illusion of a cold, dark world.

Spend time each week monitoring what’s going well in your life and with your work. Write down the compliments you receive and read them while you’re feeling low. Keep a folder labelled “Confidence Boosters” and put all the emails that make you feel great into that folder and go through it from time to time. When you feel your work and your life starting to weigh you down, make a handwritten list of what’s working well and what you’re grateful for. Doing this will refocus you and make you feel better.

Leadership has the ability to destroy you

If you fail at a project you love, you’ll feel bad. If you succeed at a project you love, more and more of your life will be consumed by your work and you’ll fall out of love. If you are a high level leader, the trick to making sure that leadership is worth it is to periodically step back and use one of the strategies above ensure that your life is enhanced by your success, not hindered by it.

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3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The dark side of leadership (and how to avoid it)”

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