What have you sacrificed?

“I missed my children growing up,” John, who is an executive in a publicly listed company said to me during one of our conversations about his career.

This statement has been quite common during my deeper conversations with leaders over the years. Reflecting on this and other similar examples, I realised that one of the most common experiences of leaders, especially for those at the top of our organisations, is one of sacrifice. It seems that no matter who I’ve spoken with, when you get to the point of honesty, one of the most defining characteristics of leaders who make it to the top is what they’ve been willing to give up on the way there.

Choices must be made

Due to the current construct of organisations – i.e. long hours, extreme uncertainty, needing to be ‘always available’, significant travel etc – decisions regarding where to allocate our finite time each day must be made. And with these decisions, compromises and sacrifices will always result.

Although this might seem a morbid, it’s important to realise that no decision can be made without the sacrifice of other choices – i.e. when choosing between two jobs, we sacrifice one for the other. This is the nature of our freedom to choose, and our responsibility to exercise our freedom; we cannot not choose as even not choosing is a choice, and with each choice we close off our other choices.

Sacrifice = Guilt + Anxiety

When considering this in relation to the sacrifices we’ve made as leaders, we can also recognise that no sacrifice is without some level of guilt and anxiety – two truly human experiences.

Guilt comes from a sense of regret about what has been lost. That is, by choosing one path over another we must accept that something is lost by making a choice. When we are making decisions regarding work and its impact on other parts of our life, our sense of guilt comes from recognising that we’ve missed out on certain experiences. For example, an executive once told me he’d missed most of his child’s birthdays when they were young.

Anxiety comes from a concern about the nature of what is and what might be – what will I do next? Anxiety therefore is frequently associated with recognising our freedom and responsibility to make further choices and thus further sacrifices.

Choices = Identity

Unless we consciously choose otherwise, any choice and thus sacrifice we make can become entrenched in the sedimented layers of our identity. As a result, our choices and sacrifices influence our leadership perspectives and priorities. When this process is unconscious there is the potential for the layers of our identity to become so fixed that we fight to retain them at all costs. This is because if we fail to defend our identity and hence the choices and sacrifices that have contributed its formation, it may feel as though these choices were in vain.

For example, many years ago I experienced a leader who had given up a lot of personal experiences in pursuit of their career. In doing this it was clear that they felt a strong sense of guilt and in some cases regret for the life they could have had. This resulted in them being completely rigid in their decisions as a leader and they were not open to any form of challenge, because if they were challenged and found to be wrong, then they took that as a reflection of all the choices they’d made in their life.

Our sacrifices can therefore create for us a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we try to maintain our sense of identity as a defence against the guilt and anxiety we feel.

When we recognise this as leaders, we must question how the choices we have made and the potential guilt and anxiety that result influence (1) how we show up, and (2) the environment this creates for those we lead. After all…

“Leaders make their environment and are made by it.”

John Lawler

(Guilt + Anxiety) x Conscious Action = Potential

Although our past need not define us, it can help be a guide for the future. In light of recognising how our choices and sacrifices influence our identity, it is our responsibility as leaders to exercise our sense of responsibility over our choices, especially in terms of what is really important to us.

“How is one to find one’s potential? Through guilt, through anxiety. Through the call of conscience. Existential guilt (regret for wasting my life, for never knowing what I could have been) is s a positive constructive force, a guide calling oneself back to oneself.”

Irvin Yalom

To unlock our true potential as leaders we have the ability to use our guilt and anxiety to help us develop more conscious action. Rather than hide from the feelings of guilt and anxiety which result from our sense of sacrifice, we should accept them and use them as prompts to better inform our future choices.

“When I recognised how guilty I felt about missing my children growing up,” John said as our conversation continued, “I realised that I needed to make different choices about where I spent my time in the future and what pressure I was putting on my team so they didn’t feel like they needed to do the same.”

As our conversation came to an end, John said something to me that will stay with me for a long time.

“I know I can’t change the past and the decisions I’ve made,” John said. “But I can use them to help me be a better leader in the future.”

Something to consider…

Consider the choices you’ve made through your life. What sacrifices were involved and how do these now impact you today?

Something to try…

Against the sacrifices you’ve made, how can you use that to inform your choices in the future?

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