When Work Becomes Too Personal, It's a Real Problem
BY Steve Tobak
When you're emotionally invested in your work, that creates energy and excitement. But you have to learn when to step back.
I once knew an entrepreneur who was so brilliant and so charismatic that people were drawn to him like moths to a flame. The company he founded and ran developed groundbreaking technology and award winning, top selling products.
When the company went public, it looked like smooth sailing ahead. But that's not what happened.
The company peaked at its IPO and went downhill from there. Years later, after selling or spinning off its technology and assets, the company simply dissolved. The brilliant and charismatic entrepreneur faded into obscurity.
Why the untimely demise of such a promising entrepreneur and his company? It wasn't about business. It wasn't about his company. It was personal. It was about his leadership.
Sure, there were competitive and scalability issues, but that's the way it is with any successful business. The real problem was that the entrepreneur took his work too personally-- as an extension of himself. He was too emotionally invested in the company.
So when pressures mounted and things got tough--as they do in a competitive world--he reacted emotionally, and not in a good way:
- Already a micromanager, he tightened his grip even further, consolidating control to a point that severely limited the company's scalability and growth.
- When executives disagreed with him, he took it as a personal attack. His bullying was aggressive and destructive. Many executive functions were like a revolving door.
- Since he was so close to the situation, he couldn't achieve perspective. And that led to one bad decision after another and, ultimately, a premature end.
I wish I could say this is a rare occurrence, but it's not. It was just my first experience with a leader who takes his work too personally, who is too emotionally attached to his ideas, whose objectivity is compromised. It's a double-edged sword like no other I've come across. And it plagues lots of entrepreneurs, executives, and business leaders.
What starts out as a flash of brilliance, a powerful vision, a breakthrough concept, achieves a certain level of success before hitting a wall. That wall is a leader who simply can't let go or give up control when he should. And that's a significant limiting factor in leadership growth and the scalability of the companies they run.
It's a cautionary tale, but one that isn't beyond help or hope. Not by any means. You see, that founder and I were a lot alike. Too much alike. So I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the management team that took that company public. It taught me a great deal about leadership at a time when I was still very impressionable. That may have been decades ago, but the lessons learned are still fresh in my mind and as impactful as they were when I first came to realize them.
Perspective requires distance. Dilemmas, tradeoffs, and tough, sticky problems are common in business. You can't resolve them objectively when you're too close to the problem, emotionally speaking. You have to achieve some level of separation. That leads to good decision-making.
Knowing you're a control freak is a big advantage. I'm still a controlling person, by nature. But that doesn't mean I have to behave like one. If you're aware of who you are and how others see you, then you can choose how to act. If you can step back, delegate, and trust others when you need to, then you're in reasonably good shape.
Leadership is about balance. There's a balance, a yin and yang, to all things in nature, including how people behave. Yang is the aggressive, controlling, action-oriented way of being. Yin is the passive, receptive, nurturing approach. Too much yang without the yin is usually a very bad idea.
Learn to be quiet and listen. There's a lot to be said for being personally and emotionally invested in your vision, your ideas, your company, your work. It creates a level of energy and excitement that draws and attracts would-be employees, investors, and customers. But you have to know when to step back, lower the emotional intensity, be quiet, and really listen to what others and your own inner voice have to say. That will bring wisdom when you need it most.