Navigating a Leadership Slump

There are a number of strategies you can employ to get beyond this unhappy state.

For just about everyone involved in leading and guiding others for an extended period, the time comes when the natural enthusiasm that fueled your work fades. For some, it’s a slow fade characterized by creeping malaise and a sense of restlessness. For others, it’s a full-scale leadership slump with a myriad of uncomfortable symptoms.

If you find yourself battling some degree of a leadership slump, there are a number of strategies you can employ to navigate beyond this less than desirable state of being. The common denominator in these strategies is a refocusing of your priorities, placing yourself at the top of the list.

I’ve lived this situation myself, and have worked with many senior leaders navigating their unique forms of leadership slumps. Four themes that emerge in all cases include:

1. Fatigue and frustration.

Years of attempting to navigate organizational impediments and bureaucratic procedures take their toll on the best of us. Let’s face it; organizational life wears us down. We are forced to color-in-the-lines and suppress our creativity or limit our experimentation with people, positions, and teams.

I once was told I could not create a new position in my business unit because there wasn’t a title for it in the master book of titles.

2. More fatigue—people are demanding.

The job of leading would be easy if it weren’t for the people. The nuances, idiosyncrasies, and quirks of those we work with and are charged with guiding and developing are wearing over time. Yes, it sounds like heresy, but it’s true.

My two most significant failures as a leader involved putting everything I thought I had into supporting two supremely talented and uniquely flawed individuals. The combination of those experiences almost finished me for the work of supporting the development of others.

3. Running with a chronic energy deficit.

All of our energy every day is expended outward in support of others. While the theory says we’re supposed to gain psychic power from this “good” work, in reality, we end up with an energy deficit where the outflow grossly exceeds the inflow, exhausting us over time.

When the reasons you jumped out of bed in the morning and stayed late at night disappear and you find yourself having to manufacture energy for the work, you are in trouble.

4. Vision challenges.

This one is big and murky but essential. Individuals tend to fall into a slump when they outrun their original vision and fail to replace it with something new and inspiring. Or, they achieve their long-held vision only to realize it wasn’t as fulfilling or rewarding as they hoped for all along.

I believe this vision issue is in the zip code of the root issue for many. It’s easy to downshift when the driving force behind your work is missing.

Four Ideas to Help You Navigate the Slump

You should match the approach to the severity of your slump and ease into this re-energizing process. If something works, great! If not, escalate. From least to most radical, consider these four ideas:

1. Pursue a hobby.

It’s likely we don’t have Apple if Steve Jobs doesn’t pursue his passion for calligraphy. Pick something far afield of your daily work and immerse yourself in your free time in this pursuit. There’s an exciting rewiring of the brain that goes on when you are hyper-stimulated to learn and apply new skills in a foreign but fun endeavor. The halo-effect for your work may be just enough to shake things up for the better at work.

One of my clients focused on improving his fitness and then scaling all of the major peaks in North America. This outside-work obsession reinvigorated his daily work guiding and developing leaders.

2. Seek intellectual stimulation.

I’ve spent a small fortune of professional development money seeking out the smartest people I know—typically at Kellogg (Northwestern)—in the form of executive education courses. I’ve never failed to drive home from Evanston, Illinois, after a session at Kellogg without my brain boiling with new ideas. The networking is fabulous as well.

Other clients have taken adult education courses at the community college, started a book club, written books, hit the speaking circuit or in one case, became an angel investor.

3. Refresh or reframe your vision for yourself.

If the vision content above resonates with you, consider rethinking or reframing your purpose and direction for the next phase of your career. I recommend pairing with a valued, objective colleague or an outside coach for this work, and focusing on drilling down into what you really want for yourself in this next stage, identifying obstacles, and creating a game-plan to move forward toward this new vision.

One individual rethought her vision of herself from an operations expert to a developer of leaders who drive great results through and with others. Another reoriented his thinking to focus on creating an environment where the firm was able to align, execute, and renew faster than competitors. In both cases, the reframing activity opened up a world of new possibilities and gave purpose and meaning back to their daily working lives.

4. Change roles.

Sometimes, you need a break. While a sabbatical might be nice, my experience is you still come back to your day job, and within a short span, the halo-effective of the experience wears off, and you are back to where you started. Instead, consider a role sabbatical, where you shift away from a leadership role to that of an individual contributor. While there may be some impediments and consequences from this move, in many organizations, it’s not impossible.

One senior manager groomed his stand-in and remained as a mentor while focusing on leading a significant shift in organizational strategy. Freed from the daily routine, he regained a sense of purpose and connection with the business as he worked across functions to bring this new initiative to life. It worked so well, his stand-in gained his old role, and this executive was asked to stay in place and own the execution of the new strategy.

It was only through stepping away from the responsibility for others that I learned how critically important that role was to who I am as a person and a professional. The sabbatical as an individual contributor helped me reframe my view to my purpose as a leader and establish a much longer-range vision for myself that transcended my organization. Within 18-months, I was back in place leading teams and more excited and appreciative than ever for this great work

The bottom line for now: That feeling of creeping malaise is uncomfortable for individuals accustomed to running at a high rate of speed as organizational leaders. Ultimately, a leadership slump is personally destructive with ripple effects that crossover into the workplace. While some can power through these momentary let-downs, for others, the chronic energy deficit created by an unceasing outward focus requires more than powering through. Take care of yourself first, or you’re no good to anyone else.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.