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When Pressure Changes Who You Are in Business

David Sherry
3 min read

Coaching Founders, CEO’s, and executives I hear dozens of stories of stress, pressure, and burnout. I hear an extremely common pattern among other peers in my life that they were previously in a job until it totally burned them out and made them the worst versions of themselves.

People will say things they don’t mean, do things that are out of character, gossip, wish ill on others within their organization, and cater to a “dog-eat-dog” mentality within cultures that create an atmosphere of fear.

I was there once myself. Through the stress of expectation, real or imagined, I began to shift who I was as I ran my business…all as a coping mechanism. In the process, I cut off parts of myself to show up and do things not that I wanted to do, but that I thought were necessary to do. These “hard calls” to fire others, convince someone of something, or just simply continue to “get by” so that we don’t lose our income…all contorted my natural way of being into a box that I didn’t even want to be in.

Sadly, this process is typically all we can muster at the time to cope with the pressures. What I see often is the slow color-drain from the vitality of founders or CEO’s as they make difficult decisions and cut off parts of themselves in the process to do so.

Can we keep our humanity while making decisions within organizations in markets that don’t seem to reward every part of ourselves, but instead reward ingenuity, metrics, dollars, and deliveries?

Even worse, outside influences often further push us to embrace our fractured selves at work. My coaching mission is a type of reunification of the full self. Yet I fear (and hear) about coaches who promote the exact opposite. They become so goal and productivity-oriented that they miss the human needs beneath the business.

Is mission accomplished truly mission accomplished if you truly burn yourself out in the process? Is success, truly success if you were miserable for a decade before having your “moment” in the spotlight to shine? Is a great life all sacrifice and disconnection prior to reaching some illusory goal that was arbitrarily set?

These are questions worth asking, especially when work dictates so much of our lives and our identities. With spending at least a 3rd of our lives working, it’s worth asking the question if we can have a life that encompasses our work-selves rather than a work life and a home life. This is practical in the long run, as we instead begin to trade the short term for the long term. When founders and CEOs burn out, their ambition changes. They begin to hope for a life of little discomfort or stress, rather than create and seek a life of meaning, passion, and energy. These are very different ways to go about working and living, one in protection and pain and the other in exploration, discovery, and adventure.

The questions we’re not asking

What I am worried about most for founders and CEO’s is not what is being said, but what is being “unsaid.” What is it that people aren’t saying out loud?

Do you have good friendships? How is your relationship with your kids? Are you suffering in ways that people don’t know about? Are you abusing anything, from alcohol to sleeping pills?

I am lucky that my clients come to me because we align on a vision for a life that is more integrated and whole. That “external success” is only one piece of a bigger puzzle that is our lives. So in my selection bias, we all have it better than most and I am proud and grateful for that.

They don’t teach you how to live a life in business school, however. And so this discussion often gets swept under the rug when everything else in the business feels so urgent. I’m reminded that the late Clayton Christiansen famously never took a job if it meant he had to work on Sundays. This was a contract he made with himself about how he wanted to live and be present for his family.

What are your personal contracts?

Could we begin by creating contracts with ourselves that are a part of who we are, agnostic to the business we own or are in? And could these contracts, real or dreamt up, keep boundaries around a version of ourselves we wish to maintain?

In a recent retreat for entrepreneurs in Nicaragua, I was blown away by how the owners of the events business wove their full selves into their work. I was told that in one of the contracts to join the business, one of the partners had put in requests about things in her life she wanted to maintain, from performance art to travel, and was able to put that right into the contract.

In a competitive market, it might sound crazy to place limitations on the requests of an employer. But I see how often founders and CEO’s are placing these limitations on themselves.

We can start by exploring some of these questions, and seeing where they take us.

It might inspire them, or you, for someone to be so bold as to have boundaries and preferences for their work.

It might even inspire you to do the same.