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Think Twice Before Taking the Top Job

Think Twice Before Taking the Top Job
Think Twice Before Taking the Top Job

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I teach many young adults who aspire to be leaders in the private and public sectors. In their classes, they study inspiring cases of success, but they also learn that a good education is no guarantee that things will go well for them. Indeed, as the Harvard Business Review reminds us, some 50 to 70 percent of new executives in private business fail in their role within 18 months of being hired or promoted. We don’t have comparable numbers for the public and nonprofit sectors, but success is far from assured there as well.

The reasons usually presented for leadership failure are predictable enough: an inability to build a team, poor communication skills, an unwillingness to do hard things, selfishness, misconduct or moral turpitude, and so forth. But one huge reason that I have seen again and again almost never gets serious attention: Leaders fail when they hate being the leader.

People commonly assume that being the boss will bring them a lot of happiness and fulfillment. For most people, it does not—at least not to start with. And for some, being in charge brings misery from beginning to end. The knock-on effect is that when you are unhappy in your job, you will struggle to succeed.

If you are an ambitious person at work and find yourself coveting the corner office, you can save yourself a lot of potential grief by first thinking carefully about whether you really want to be the boss or do the boss’s job. If you can consider coolly whether the pressure, exhaustion, and loneliness that accompany that job might doom your well-being, and thus your ability to succeed, you could save yourself a lot of trouble.

The assumption that leadership increases satisfaction levels in life and work suffers from the “correlation-causation fallacy.” This is the belief that because two things typically occur together, one causes the other. For example, a number of research studies have shown that in workplaces, executives tend to report higher job satisfaction than their employees. Some studies have suggested a biological explanation for this, finding that stress-hormone levels tend to be lower among higher-status employees, and researchers posit that this is less because of their high status per se than the calming sense of control their status gives them, particularly if it is stable. (That, of course, is a big if in the world of business.) These findings are widely seen as evidence that being promoted will make you happy.

But the research does not tell us whether becoming the boss raises well-being. This outcome could very well be a “selection effect,” in which people who like their jobs more tend to get promoted, as do people who naturally deal well with stress. A better way to see how becoming a boss affects happiness is by looking at people before and after their promotions, as two German researchers did recently for an article published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. After examining a decade of career data for nearly 26,000 employees, some of whom were promoted while others weren’t, they were able to assess more accurately how being elevated to leadership tended to affect well-being.

The results were mixed but generally not positive. Measuring overall life satisfaction, the data showed that people who were moving toward promotion were usually getting slightly happier in the five years before gaining a leadership position. They became unhappier when the promotion occurred, however, and their satisfaction didn’t recover to the pre-promotion level until two years into the new job. Only after that did their happiness resume a gradual upward trend.

A more striking effect occurred with anger, which significantly increased after promotion and did not fully abate for another five years. I have found no research explaining why new leaders might suffer from additional anger for such a long time, but I remember struggling with it myself as a new chief executive when I led a large nonprofit earlier in my career. The reason was simple: I felt completely deprived of control in my job, with the difficult task of herding cats while being held strictly accountable for doing so by a board of directors. Without a lot of emotional fortitude, this anger can lead to career demise. As research has shown, the anger of leaders may be associated with problems such as anxiety among subordinates and the perception of petty tyranny. Anger decimates the desire of others to follow.

Another problem endemic to leadership is loneliness. The Harvard Business Review has shown that half of CEOs report experiencing loneliness on the job, and that many believe that it hurts their performance. One of the entrance requirements at my business school is prior work experience; most of my students have already had jobs with significant responsibility. I usually ask how many of them have had the experience of being promoted above their work friends, and most of the hands go up. I then ask who had felt loneliness as a result; most hands stay in the air. If my students succeed in their ambitions, this feeling will probably be part of their future.

So should you seek the corner office? It depends. Maybe you are the outlier who finds perfect bliss in boss life, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Having your eyes open to the costs and not just the benefits of leadership is the wise course. Here are three guidelines to consider as you plan your future.

1. Some people should avoid leadership.
If you have trouble with alcohol, you probably shouldn’t become a bartender or work in a liquor store, because your life will be harder in the proximity of so much booze. Similarly, if you are troubled by loneliness or your anger is hard to manage, leading others may well make your issue worse. Not only is this very bad for your well-being; it can make life harder for others around you and compromise your likelihood of success in an executive job at which, as we saw, 50 to 70 percent of new arrivals fail.

2. If you do take the job, be ready.
Even if loneliness and anger aren’t particular problems for you, the data suggest that you might experience them at elevated levels. Just as you wouldn’t go into a high-stakes job unprepared professionally, you shouldn’t go in unprepared emotionally. Perhaps this means seeking help before you need it. This isn’t as strange as it sounds; I routinely recommend to executives that they seek therapy before they retire, to prepare for what can be a brutal transition. The same might be worthwhile before your promotion, but you can find many other techniques for emotional self-management, including meditation or prayer. The key thing is to start before you are struggling.

3. Don’t take the top job if you’re not willing to take a temporary hit to your happiness.
Even if the average newly minted boss doesn’t have loneliness or anger-management concerns, they can face two years of happiness below their old level. This is baffling if they expected to be happier, but completely normal and generally temporary. Still, two years is a long time. Perhaps you are willing to make this sacrifice for the good of others or for your own long-term gain. But you may have plenty of good reasons not to make this sacrifice—maybe you’re ready to wind down your career, for example, or would simply rather opt for the life-is-short school of living. Consider the cons before moving into the corner office.

No matter how compelling the happiness case might be against rising to leadership, the idea of letting it pass might be very troubling. Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that as a social and hierarchical species, humans likely evolved to seek the accumulation of status, power, and prestige, all of which can convert to dominance. If Mother Nature is goading you to try to make it to the top, waiving a big opportunity for those things can feel very unnatural. But remember: Mother Nature doesn’t care whether you’re happy; she just wants you to survive and pass on your genes. Your Pleistocene brain is telling you that if you are the boss, you’ll get more food and mates—so you’d better take the job! But of course, this motivation is anachronistic nonsense in modern life, or ought to be.

If you see that leadership is going to spoil your quality of life, stand up to your animal instincts. Let some other poor sap suffer with the brass ring.

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