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When Leaders Become Martyrs (Yes, It Could Happen to You)

There's a type of leader that thrives on being a bottleneck, loves to express their exhaustion, and is a master of being totally helpless. Meet the martyr-leader.
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What do you do if you're stuck working with a martyr-leader--or if you are one yourself?

Ultimately, you'll discover that there is no point in trying to reform them. A martyr-leader can only reform themself.

As you'll see below, martyr-leaders don't want to be reformed, and you're only going to drive yourself crazy trying to change that. Better by far to find ways to leave them in their own mire of self-absorption (which is what martyr-leadership is, at heart), and firewall your activities from theirs as much as possible, so you don't get dragged into their morass. 

And if you are the martyr-leader? Two words: get help. You need a strong-willed mentor or coach to help you out of the dysfunctional mindset and destructive routines you've fallen into--and if you don't find that help, take my word for it: your business will never grow to what it can be.

Here are three signs you're a martyr-leader:

1. You're a bottleneck... and you secretly like it. It's surprisingly easy to spot a martyr-leader--just take a look at their inbox or their voicemail. You'll find hundreds of unreturned emails and calls, haphazardly managed and almost completely un-prioritized.

Does that mean that every disorganized person is a martyr-leader? No. The difference is that the martyr-leader needs the disorganization, primarily for the sense of overwhelm that it engenders.

Martyr-leaders need to feel precisely that--martyred. To be fulfilled, therefore, they must experience a sense of almost complete overwhelm. And if those emails and voicemails weren't piling up, if everything was nicely structured and under control, how on earth would the martyr-leader ever have a sense of self-worth?

And the emails and voicemails are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Take a deeper look and you'll find unfulfillable commitments, impossibly herculean to-do lists and triple-booked schedules - all generating in our martyr-leader the warm, comforting glow of indispensability.

Except that what they see as 'indispensability' is in fact just one enormous bottleneck, sucking every decision, every process, into their black hole of neediness, slowing the business to a crawl and limiting its growth to the little that emanates--grindingly, if at all--from their gravitational pull.

2. Your default mood is exasperation. Watch a martyr-leader as they go about their daily business and you'll find two primary attitudes on display: 'Poor me', in which the martyr-leader indulges in just a little self-pity (only a little, of course, because our martyr-leader must be seen to rise above the cross they're forced to carry); and 'Head-shaking sigh', in which everyone else is passive-aggressively judged as being close to useless.

Why so hard on everyone else? Because everyone else must be responsible for the martyr-leader's sense of overwhelm. The only other option-- that the overwhelm is caused by their own incompetence (or a deep-seated psychological need)-- is, of course, totally unacceptable.

3. You exude 'learned helplessness'. Martyr-leaders don't operate in a vacuum, of course. They work with other people. Normal, competent people, some of whom see what's going on with the martyr-leader and try to help, usually to the point of utter frustration.

Here's the thing about martyr-leaders: they don't want your help. They're overwhelmed, and they like it that way (despite all their protestations to the contrary). Everything's an unorganized, chaotic shambles, and that's just as it needs to be (no matter how much logic you bring to bear).

Spend two days helping a martyr-leader master a filing system, and in two hours they'll unpick every part of it. Try to explain the simplest of triage techniques, and they'll have seven reasons why that's a great idea, but not right for this situation, right now. Try to organize them in November, and they'll tell you why it's better to come back in January. Come back in January, and the goalposts will have moved to March.

Martyr-leaders live in the grip of learned helplessness--a self-taught state of mind whereby nothing is ever truly fixable - that ultimately, everything is a mess and we may as well get used to it.


Discover how to overcome leadership challenges within your organization. Download a free chapter from the author's book, "The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success" which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or others as an exceptional, world class leader.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Nov 12, 2013




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