In my book, The Leadership Contract, I position that there is no easy path to being a truly accountable leader. Almost everything a leader is asked to do involves considerable hard work: delivering consistent financial results, attaining high team performance, executing strategy, leading change and driving innovation. All these tasks place enormous demands and pressures on leaders.
In my conversations with leaders, many reveal the fact that they feel overwhelmed, and even underwater. When that happens, they start acting like bystanders, always trying to find the easy way out of a challenge. They apply quick fixes to complex problems, and then act surprised when it doesn’t go their way.
I’ve come to believe that if you’re in a leadership role and can’t handle the hard work and the pressure, you really need to ask yourself whether you should even be in a leadership role.
That’s certainly at the foundation of what Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba, believes. In a recent speech, Ma outlined the leadership wisdom that made him a billionaire in one of the world’s most successful e-commerce companies. His message was pretty straightforward: if you want your life to be simple, you shouldn’t take on a leadership role.
Hard work and dedication can be its own reward for leaders. That’s largely because hard-working leaders are almost always more successful in their business endeavors. But there could be other advantages as well. It turns out that all the hard work might actually be good for your health.
Recent research reveals that experiencing complex challenges like those that accompany many leadership roles may help people stay mentally healthy later on in life, and even prevent or slow down cognitive decline.
These findings are based on a large-scale investigation published in the journal PLOS Medicine and led by the University of Exeter involving data from 2,315 mentally fit people over the age of 65. The study explored the theory that experiences early or mid-life which challenge the brain make people more resilient to changes resulting from age or illness – they have higher “cognitive reserve.”
Dr. Linda Clare, Professor of Clinical Psychology of Ageing and Dementia at the University of Exeter, said in the study report that “people who engage in stimulating activity which stretches the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher cognitive reserve.” That helps make their brains more resilient to dementia later in life.
This research could help many of us in leadership roles reframe how we view hard work and the pressures we face every day. Yes, being a leader is demanding and difficult. However, as we tackle complex challenges, we are actually building a more resilient brain that may produce health benefits later in life.
What do you think about the findings from this research? Let me know your thoughts.
This week’s gut check asks: do you relish the pressures you face in your leadership role?