New year, new me. It’s one of those common phrases that describes the anticipation and excitement of a new year, and possibly better changes for us as individuals. At the same time, a change in the calendar year is unlikely to lead to automatic change – even more so for those who are feeling empty with a need to fill an internal void.
This sense of emptiness is often accompanied by the anxiety of being directionless, a lack of security in personal self-worth, and a disinterest or demotivation for usual activities. Unfortunately, leaders are not an exception to these emotions.
As a matter of fact, because of the ideals often perpetuated about leadership, leaders feel a significant need to live up to these ideals even when internally they are not emotionally aligned.
Bernice Ledbetter from Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business and Management wrote about the six myths of leadership. One was particularly striking in which we seem to think that leaders always keep their emotions in check.
In reality, leaders are also humans who have different emotions and a variety of responses.
There can be various reasons why a leader feels empty, some of which are:
- Feeling overwhelmed from managing constant crises or feeling burnt out from lack of pacing.
- Feeling stagnated from the lack of new learning, challenges or lack of support.
- Feeling lost from a lack of direction, personal vision or increase of ambiguity.
Personally, I still remember that at the end of my first job as a team lead, despite the structure provided, there was a profound sense of emptiness. What follows is my take on how I navigated the emptiness and filled the void meaningfully.
Reflect and reframe
With everything that happens in life, we need to make sense before we can make a choice and make peace with that choice. Two key steps in making sense is through Reflection and Reframing, which signifies the beginning of every renewal.
The key thing with Reflection is the need to be honest with observations on the surface and not discounting what these observations may mean. There’s a need to be open and accepting of the different possibilities that lie beneath these observations.
It is only when we have ran out of possibilities of reasoning and understandings that Reframing helps us discern what leads to this emptiness.
This is extremely important as we need to discern what factors can or cannot be controlled by us. The expectation though is that Reflecting and Reframing happens in cycles before we decide to go on the Recycle or Reinvent track.
One of the tracks we can take after Reframing is to Recycle. As we accumulate a lot of experiences in our life, inevitably some will be wasted, no longer relevant nor necessary.
However, it is key to remember that one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. Being able to “recycle” our experience and knowledge by passing it on to someone else creates generativity which has been shown in psychological research to help bolster the feeling of emptiness, particularly for leaders at their pinnacle of success.
This can be as simple as having an informal conversation with someone who is under your guidance, teaching a new skill, or even actively mentoring within the community, such as youths, who would benefit from career advice.
The Recycle track is particularly effective if the leader reflects and realises that they would still like to remain in the current ecosystem. It could be for practical reasons such as family obligations or because they still find it fitting with the overall culture.
Recycling our experience and knowledge for the next generation provides leaders with a sense of fulfilment by understanding how our work impacts another. Sometimes, we may even find that by passing on the baton, we get a third person’s perspective of our goals and vision – this clarity can be rejuvenating to the internal void.
On the other hand, and perhaps on a more extreme level, the emptiness that leaders feel may require a bigger or more obvious change. At this point of time, perhaps a Reinvent may be more helpful to renew oneself and fill the void. A common way of reinvention is to move one’s career, either into a new field, new area or new landscape.
Interestingly, a change of landscape such as from corporate work to entrepreneurship, even when it requires longer hours, can create a sense of renewal even in the most burnt-out leaders.
This could be attributed to the ownership the leader now has over his or her new direction that it is no longer about the details such as daily work hours. Some leaders choose to contribute in an entirely different field, such as in the non-profit sector while others take a sabbatical to continue their studies in an area they have been keen to explore.
The idea here is to humble oneself back to the apprentice level which can prove very eye-opening for a leader who is used to his or her high mastery position.
Truth be told, the follow up from Reflecting and Reframing may not be an either-or question between Recycle and Reinvent. Often, it is possible that one precedes the other, such as my choice to first mentor my team members and to pass on my knowledge before deciding that the bolder step of reinvention is needed. In my own reinvention, I decided to take on a new project role in a different organisational ecosystem albeit in the same field.
What we can sum this up to be is that leaders are still humans and there are “leadership diseases” that will creep in (see Harvard Business Review’s The 15 Diseases of Leadership for a good read) at any point of our leadership journey.
When that point comes, we are left with the option of acceptance, and then being intentional about renewing it.
My phase of emptiness lasts a couple of months and that’s where all the resilience in leadership is needed to tide through it. Put it this way, emptiness on one hand can be a void; on the other hand, it can be a new vessel waiting to be filled with your new adventures.
Happy ReNewal Year!