By: Frank Vos
It’s quite a coincidence that the invitation to write about a life-changing stress-related event has come at thís time when I’m literally about to publish my own experiences in a book ‘Beyond Burnout – When Leadership comes under fire.’
A leadership guide to stress management, it begins with a brutally honest and painful recount of how the impact of the ravages of prolonged stress, self-deception and self-destruction contributed to the end of my twenty-one-year career as CEO.
My role as head of a subsidiary of a multinational took off at the relatively early age of thirty-one. For many years I was on that well-trodden road of hard work, success and facing the stresses that came with increasing responsibilities, as the company grew. I loved it. As things became tough – a growing organisation brought increasing staff problems, corporate politics and deteriorating economic conditions, bouts of burnouts increased in frequency and intensity. My denial of my growing inability to cope with stress and more importantly, enjoy the fruits of my labour, intensified too. When I looked in my bathroom mirror in the morning, I started to see a completely different person my staff came to see and experience as the years went on. I won’t mention my family.
This growing distance between what a leader thinks the effect of his behaviour has on other people and what other people are experiencing is a classic symptom of reduced (low) emotional intelligence.
Unbeknown to me, but a key subject of research in neuroscience and psychology, prolonged periods of excessive stress cause, besides the well-known negative effects on physical and mental well-being, an erosion of one’s emotional intelligence. If not recognised early, acknowledged and treated, this has devastating consequences on the ability to lead successfully and to live a happy life.
In my case, it culminated into an existential crisis. I was told after a twenty-one year illustrious career, ironically upon my return from a well overdue sabbatical, that I was ‘too distant’ from my organisation and that it would be better if the company and I went our separate ways. To say that it came as a complete surprise was an understatement.
Once the initial shock of the company’s decision had passed, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders and soon began to make plans for the future. I could see it in front me. New company, new horizons. I soon hit the wall. Being male, over fifty years old and in my country’s case, the subject of government attempts to address racial injustices of the past, I soon found out that I was far less desirable in the job market than I thought. The rejections inadvertently led to an identity crisis which drove me into a deep depression. Only through the intervention of a friend who used his coaching skills, was I able to dig myself out of a very deep and dark hole. Through his help I was able to do some serious self-reflection: if I was going to do something new, it better be something I was passionate about, had enough basic competencies in to learn, acquire new skills and feed my family. Ultimate goal: to find meaning in my life. I now want to help others in leadership positions in avoiding the route my career took and empower them to lead more fulfilling careers and happier lives.
Stressors can’t be avoided, but our way to deal with them positively is a skill that can be acquired and strengthened. Emotional intelligence can be restored and built upon.
To discover that the alignment of one’s career with one’s personal passion, interest and skills can lead to a new and fulfilling life, has been the biggest gift I’ve received through going beyond burnout and back. A road less travelled remains at times uncertain and – stressful, yet this time it’s enough to push me on, climb new mountains and enjoy the view.
Author’s note: Besides Employment Engagement Surveys (EES) which can be very helpful in detecting a leader or organisation’s – low or diminishing emotional intelligence, there is an interesting psycho-metric test which is often used during the selection stage of the recruitment process. It is the Hogan Development Survey (HDS).“ The HDS describes the dark side of personality – qualities that emerge in times of increased strain and which can disrupt relationships, damage reputations, and derail peoples’ chances of success. By assessing the extent of Dark-side Personality traits, one can recognise and mitigate performance risks before they become a problem.” (hoganassessments.com)