Don't Let 'Death Anxiety' Ruin Your CEO Tenure

If you haven't dealt with your inevitable demise, you're likely to engage in behaviors that will undermine your leadership ability and hurt your company's future.
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As morbid as it is to think about, the only certainty that life provides it that it will someday end. But while death is an inevitability, dwelling on it can have serious negative effects. As a CEO, fearing your mortality and the end of your power can lead to anxious actions that will continue to hurt your company long after your reign is over.

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, the Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, says it's important to work through your own anxiety about death by having what he calls an "existential wake-up call," or a moment of reflection on your life.

"When we repress our fear of death and refuse to confront it … many of us develop a death anxiety that can all too easily manifest itself in one or more of several highly dysfunctional behaviors," Kets de Vries writes in Harvard Business Review. "The only way to avoid being anxious about death is, instead, to embrace life and to look for ways to give it more meaning, which typically involves engaging more with other people and with the aspects of life outside work."

Kets de Vries has outlined three common behaviors CEOs may engage in, especially near the end of their tenure, when they haven't dealt with "death anxiety." Make sure to heed his advice so your company doesn't suffer.

Don't Become a Manic Workaholic.

Working incessantly at all hours of the day and being unable to relax are signs you're trying to distract your mind. Kets de Vries says this behavior is like an "anti-depressant," filling time that should be reserved for family and leisure. "It's a common response to anxiety but it is destructive in the long run. Unexamined anxiety begets increased activity, which offers only a temporary respite, prompting even more activity," he writes in HBR. "The escalating pace of activity, however, cannot be maintained. Manic behavior cannot forever repress the unacknowledged feelings that drive it." Although today's business culture praises unsustainable and unhealthy behavior, Kets de Vries says that you will need to deal with your emotions and face your fears before you have a breakdown, or make a serious mistake that will hurt your company.

Don't Put Off Succession.

As you approach retirement, Kets de Vries writes in HBR, "death anxiety often plays out in a refusal to confront succession." Planning to step down "runs counter to the deep-seated wish we all have to believe in our own immortality," he writes. "Although this is very rarely acknowledged, many CEOs avoid thinking about succession for these reasons, and loyal colleagues are wary of raising the subject lest it seem that they wish to hasten the CEO's demise." But putting off your search for a replacement will actually hurt your company's future--if you stay too long you'll end up harming productivity and innovation. Find a worthy replacement early, be a mentor, and prepare him or her for your departure.

Don't Succumb to the "Edifice Complex."

Everyone wants to live on forever in some way. Kets de Vries says that "the edifice complex" drives politicians to construct a building or create an award in their own name, emperors to erect monuments, and U.S. presidents to build libraries. "Similarly, aging CEOs often initiate grandiose projects--complex, game-changing deals that would fall through without them--often describing the project expressly as part of their legacy," he writes. These projects distract the CEO from more important issues, however, like developing future company leaders. 

Check out the video below of Eileen Fisher, entrepreneur and fashion designer, speaking about how thinking about death spurred her plans for her company:

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Mar 24, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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