Looking back, the signs were all there but I failed to see them. As CEO of an international talent development company for nine years, I had been slowly snipping off the corners of myself, unknowingly, bit by bit, in order to fit into a role that no longer served me or I it. Instead of paying attention to my declining health and mood, I plunged deeper into busyness and drove myself (and, unfortunately, everyone around me) even harder. When I finally stepped down I was overcome, surprisingly, not with regret but with relief.
In retrospect I see that I was a leader who had lost touch with what I most cared about. I was no longer in touch with the meaning my work had always provided me. As a dear friend of mine said to me during those difficult days, "Terrie, you were out on the skinny branch -- you know the one that easily breaks with a strong wind. You were so busy and overwhelmed and out of touch with your own values, cares and guiding beliefs that you failed to pay attention to the branch that was about to break."
I know my experience is a common one among women leaders and business professionals. We are deluged on a daily basis with details, problems, possibilities, politics, conversations, meetings, action steps, stakeholder demands, commands and requests. On the personal side, we are raising our kids, supporting our aging parents, dealing with partnership challenges, maintaining important friendships all while trying to take care of our own health and well-being.
In the face of so many demands, it is easy to ignore the external and internal messages warning us that we are in overwhelm, out of touch, heading off-course. Amidst all the busyness and distractions of daily living it's easy to lose sight of what we most care about and, when we do, we end up drained, depleted or worse. Days, months, even years go by as we slowly and unknowingly creep out onto that skinny branch where it's just a matter of time before a good strong wind causes the branch to break and takes the form of illness, regret, burn-out or worse.
Looking back at my own experience there were many warning signs that I was out on that skinny branch. Upon reflection I think the most obvious sign that I was out of alignment with what really mattered to me was my declining mood. Over time I had gone from optimism, joy, enthusiasm and ambition to frustration, resentment, resignation and exhaustion. I missed (or perhaps ignored) that warning sign and instead, employed the common but unsustainable strategy of hunkering down and working even harder.
Mood: The Canary in the Coal Mine
Besides not being personally satisfying, the moods I was working and interacting from had a direct and negative impact on my actions, relationships and results. What we've learned from all the research around emotional intelligence is that the moods and emotions we human beings think and take action from influence the outcomes we get (or don't get). Moods and emotions predispose us to take certain actions and to not take other actions. They influence what we say and what we don't say. Leadership actually requires a competence in creating and managing the moods among the organizational members. The moods leaders generate can either engage and inspire the individuals and teams to better performance or discourage and deter them from great performance.
I learned that, as a leader, you either pay attention to and manage the moods (including your own) in the organization or, as happens too frequently, you ignore them and pay the price of lower job satisfaction, lower productivity, waste, inefficiencies, lack of innovation and creativity, to name a few. You either manage the moods or they will end up running you.
Once I realized I was out on that skinny branch, I could see that a pattern had developed in my interactions with others. I was more short-tempered, frustrated, and impatient and I didn't reserve those moods just for office hours. They spilled into my personal life as well. I wasn't operating from my best self or acting consistent with the kind of leader I aspired to. Like the canary used in the coal mines to detect a lack of oxygen, my mood should have been a warning sign for me to pay closer attention. My mood was a clear sign that I was no longer living in alignment with what mattered to me most; that I was compromising my values and standards in a position that I no longer enjoyed or found meaningful. Without that awareness I ended up enduring situations, events, and people that weren't a fit for my vision and the future I wanted to create.
Thank goodness that I eventually woke up and recognized the signs before paying an even bigger price for my lack of awareness. I stayed two years too long in that job. Maybe that's not such a huge price tag; I know and work with people who have been in resentment and resignation for a lot longer than that. But, that's two years I won't get back and, for me, life is too precious to waste any time living without whole heartedness and joy.