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The Shifting Burden of Modern Leadership

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When I first launched my company, countless issues kept me up at night: financing, finding the right talent, my go-to-market strategy. The list seemed endless. I complained about my problems to a successful entrepreneur, whom I believed had it all worked out. She patiently listened for awhile before snapping me out of my delusions. I needed to enjoy the honeymoon phase of my company, she lectured, because when I get to her stage, just ensuring you make payroll can cause sleepless nights.

Admittedly, the grass always seems greener in someone else's pasture, and many believe success -- most often interpreted in dollars -- to be the stage when life gets easier. After perusing the most recent survey of top paid U.S. CEOs, I started wondering how well they sleep at night. Does Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, sleep soundly while drawing pay of $96.1-million? Does he rest better than John Brock, CEO and chairman of Coca-Cola enterprises, who earns 'only' $10.2-million?

I reached out to several experts in the field and it appears money doesn't buy peace of mind and a leader's biggest worry often comes down to variations of the same theme: managing people. And if that's not their top concern, it should be.

"In my opinion, what should be nagging everyone in a leadership position is employee disengagement," said Nicole Lipkin, a Philadelphia-based organizational psychologists who works with executives around the world and is the author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.

"If your employee's level of engagement isn't a priority -- a problem in and of itself -- then consider the impact it has on your customers," she warned.

The alarming rate of employee disengagement, said Ms. Lipkin, is associated with reduced productivity, performance, workplace safety, retention, loyalty, and profit -- to name just a few concerns.

Emotions are also contagious and negative ones can trickle across every tier of a business, within a company and out to the customers. "It's just that powerful," she added.

Glain Roberts-McCabe, founder and president of The Executive Roundtable, a Toronto-based leadership organization for mid-career executives concurs that one of the top concerns of leaders comes down to retaining key talent, specifically mid-career professionals looking for room to grow.

"I worry that organizations are becoming increasingly out of sync with the needs of this next generation's executive group and are losing their best and brightest because of apathy at senior levels," said Ms. Roberts-McGabe, who works primarily with mid-career leaders deemed "high potentials" in their organization.

For other leaders, retaining talent remains a major concern, but doing so needs to include a greater approach to gender diversity, which relies on an evolving corporate culture.

"There are highly qualified women to hire and with their talent they bring added value to the various teams, as well as value added to the company's bottom line," said Susan Butler, CEO of The Susan Bulkeley Butler Institute for the Development of Women Leaders based in Tuscon, Arizona.

"Given that most employers are assuming that women are 'short term' employees, they have not changed their cultures to grow them as 'long term' employees, moving up the career path," observed Ms. Butler, who before her retirement in 2002, was the managing partner for Accenture's Office of the CEO.

"To really be successful, companies need to impact their current culture which is based on a male workforce. And to quote CEOs, that is where the hard work comes in: changing the culture," she added.

Just when leaders thought they had enough worries, these competing demands can turn good bosses bad, according to Ms. Lipkin.

She observed three flaws that risk bringing a leader down: being too busy to win, being too proud to see, and being too afraid to lose. As an example, she cites Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Britain's Lloyds Banking Group who was forced to take an extended break in November 2011 due to stress and overwork. Acute insomnia kept him awake for five straight days, forcing him to seek medical attention, which severely impacted the company's share price, said Ms. Lipkin.

"You can't be a great boss when you are overwhelmed and way too busy," observed Ms. Lipkin. She explained that it's important for leaders to image their brain is like a shelf. When you set it up, the instructions warn that it can only accommodate 50 pounds but many forget and keep piling on more books, ignoring the sagging in the middle. When it snaps, they act surprised.

"Leadership is hard. Being in charge or directing other people is rewarding but brutal, and if we're being completely honest, sometimes painfully annoying. However, our weapon, when it comes to evolving as a leader, is really a commitment to life-long self-awareness. Self-awareness begins with admitting that you are a fallible human," she added.