Executives Must Face Their Own Mortality
April 4, 2014 Editor 0
Matters came to a head for Zara, an operations executive in an IT company, when her husband Bruce found her hyperventilating on their kitchen floor at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. “She was close to total collapse. After work the night before, she had gotten everything ready for Christmas. Our deal is that I take over on Christmas day, so that morning, she should have stayed in bed with a coffee while I did the work. And yet, she got up early, and when I went to look for her, I found her collapsed on the floor.”
Thinking back, Bruce realized that although Zara had previously been a fairly relaxed person, she had changed over the past few years. Now, Zara was increasingly ratty on weekends, she would work on public holidays, and as her vacations approached, she would go into hyper-drive. As Bruce recalled, “One night she came to bed with her phone and her tablet. I said, ‘would you like me to move your bed into your study?’ She turned everything off, but she couldn’t relax. After an hour, she got up and went to her study so she could keep working. It was weird, like she was totally unable to switch off, even when I pointed out the damage she was doing to our family life.”
When Bruce called the company the day after Zara’s Christmas morning collapse to inform them that she would be taking medical leave on doctor’s orders, her boss replied that everyone in the office would be relieved to hear the news. They had been concerned about her health and behavior for some time, although her performance had been as satisfactory as ever. In addition, her colleagues found her zeal for taking on ever-increasing amounts of work to be quite a challenge for them. Her boss agreed it was time for Zara to take a break. She added that the company was prepared to offer Zara the support of an executive coach or therapist to guide her towards more efficient work practices.
After Zara was ready to return to work, Zara’s boss suggested she contact me to explore coaching options. Zara accepted her boss’s offer reluctantly, but after she had described the recent events in her life, we established a working alliance. We started by identifying recurring patterns related to her manic work behavior — including times when such behavior kicked in, and how she felt in those moments — and then we discussed possible underlying causes.
Reflecting on her behavior, Zara came to realize that a major contributing factor to her stress was that she would soon be thirty-five, the same age as her mother was when she had died, leaving Zara and her siblings alone with a despondent father. As this watershed date approached for Zara, it reactivated thoughts and feelings connected to the event. Although she had not been consciously aware of these lingering emotions, our discussions helped Zara make the link to her current pattern of frenetic activity.
At thirty-five, Zara was younger than most sufferers from death anxiety-related behaviors; for most people under forty, death is something of a distant abstraction. They still see life unfolding as “time-from-birth.” But after a person turns forty, death or illness of loved ones often causes a person to begin thinking of their own existence as a matter of “time-left-to-live.” It’s a profound shift in mindset that motivational theories or textbooks on organizational behavior scarcely address. In fact, most people in Western societies push all thoughts of death into the recesses of the mind. You certainly don’t hear people in boardrooms dwelling on the subject—and it is even more difficult for people under forty to acknowledge the type of existential wake-up call that Zara had experienced with her panic attack.
This is a big problem, for organizations included. When we repress our fear of death and refuse to confront it, like Zara, many of us develop a death anxiety that can all too easily manifest itself in one or more of several highly dysfunctional behaviors:
- Manic overwork. Zara’s incessant working was a sort of anti-depressant, a way to distract her mind through a flurry of activity. It’s a common response to anxiety but it is destructive in the long run. Unexamined anxiety begets increased activity, which offers only a temporary respite, prompting even more activity. The escalating pace of activity, however, cannot be maintained. Manic behavior cannot forever repress the unacknowledged feelings that drive it. Unfortunately, in contemporary organizations, work addicts like Zara are often praised and compensated for their unhealthy behavior — until the day they collapse or make a serious mistake.
- Avoiding succession issues. For people reaching retirement age, death anxiety often plays out in a refusal to confront succession. Succession planning evokes the impending loss of power that stepping down will bring. And at a deeper level, it runs counter to the deep-seated wish we all have to believe in our own immortality. Although this is very rarely acknowledged, many CEOs avoid thinking about succession for these reasons, and loyal colleagues are wary of raising the subject lest it seem that they wish to hasten the CEO’s demise. As a result, many CEOs stay on far too long. Meanwhile the organization stagnates and productivity stalls because of the leader’s fear of letting go.
- The edifice complex. Political leaders like to create a tangible legacy — an organization, building, or award in their name. Indian emperors build monuments like the Taj Mahal, American presidents have their libraries. Similarly, aging CEOs often initiate grandiose projects — complex, game-changing deals that would fall through without them—often describing the project expressly as part of their legacy. Unfortunately, this type of project may distract the CEO from other, more important issues — like leadership development and succession planning — and in addition may be directly value-destructive. Again, traditional motivational theories are at a loss to explain this kind of behavior, but to a psychologist the drive to construct these “edifices” is explained by death anxiety, a desire to achieve immortality that trumps all other goals.
All these behaviors are attempts to deny or cheat death in some way, but they are doomed to fail, because death is inevitable. The only way to avoid being anxious about death is, instead, to embrace life and to look for ways to give it more meaning, which typically involves engaging more with other people and with the aspects of life outside work.
In Zara’s case, I worked on focusing more of her energy and time on the pleasures to be found in the life she had with Bruce and her children. Over time, she learned to become better at delegation and priority setting, to scale back her working hours, and to develop the capacity to disconnect from work when out of the office. She started by making relatively small changes, such as not answering her phone at mealtimes, not taking her laptop to the table or to bed, and not looking at e-mails on weekends. As these habits took hold and she engaged more with her family, her desire for constant work-related activity decreased, and her anxiety about not being constantly busy declined. I was not surprised to learn that her performance at work actually improved, and that her colleagues once again enjoyed her energy and creativity.
The playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.” An inadequate life is often the result of frenetic activity focused on unimportant things. Instead, we should do our best to make the most of our time left to live.
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