Leaders Suffer
March 2005

This is a good time of year to talk about suffering as it pertains to leadership.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions that people have of great leaders is that they are the recipients of only wonderful benefits - fame, fortune, perks, attention - as a result of holding their position of power or influence. Often we focus on the accolades that leaders receive at the end of their career, in many cases even after they have died. The truth is, being a leader, at least a great one, is a largely sacrificial endeavor, one with far greater costs than benefits.

Part of the reason this misconception exists is that leaders are not encouraged, or even allowed, to acknowledge their pain and suffering. After all, in many organizations leaders earn a lot more money than the people they lead, and any discussion of their pain would elicit little sympathy.

Which is fine, because sympathy is not what leaders need most. What they do need is an understanding that all great leaders suffer, and that important accomplishments cannot be achieved without suffering. This has been true throughout history. What kind of suffering am I referring to?

Loneliness, rejection, unpopularity, blame and criticism. And while it is true that no one gets through life without experiencing all of these realities from time to time, great leaders put themselves in a position to get far more than their fair share, and with greater intensity.

Great leaders are often lonely because they do not give in to the temptation to vent their problems with others in the organization, deciding instead to carry those issues themselves. They experience unpopularity and rejection by making the difficult decisions that can temporarily alienate the people they lead. They invite blame and criticism by accepting responsibility for every failure in the organization while giving away credit for most successes.

In short, great leaders make the mission of the organization more important than their personal needs, which takes a very real toll on any human being. It leads to restless nights of sleep, strain on their families and questions about self-worth. And again, that's above and beyond the regular doses of these maladies that non-leaders experience.

Now, when people assume positions of leadership without expecting all of this, they set themselves up for substantial disillusionment and disappointment. And once that disappointment kicks in, they often find themselves tempted to compensate themselves through excessive financial or ego-related rewards.

In fact, this failure to understand the inherently sacrificial nature of leadership may well lie at the heart of the scandals that have made their way onto the front pages of our newspapers. Disappointed with the relatively unsatisfying personal economics of their jobs, CEOs look for love in all the wrong places. Fame. Fortune. Perks. Attention.

Truly great leaders overcome these temptations. They know that the only real, lasting reward for being a leader is the accomplishment of goals that result in the betterment of others. Even when that involves suffering.

So, whether you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the head of a department within that company, an entrepreneurial leader of a small business, the principal of an elementary school or the minister of a church, remember that suffering is part of your job. And the next time you're in the midst of it, know that you're probably doing something important.

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