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What To Do When You're a Bad Leader

solar eclipse

For all your strengths––your talent, charisma, optimism, consistency, endurance––there will come a day when your leadership is lacking. In reality, similar days will happen more than once––more than anyone will admit––and sometimes for multiple days strung together. These are important moments to recognize, for if you fail to see them, bad leadership will become your baseline rather than your rock bottom. Let’s assume the best. You know, without a shred of doubt, that you are having a bad day. What now? Here’s my shortlist for a rock bottom bounce back:

  • If you have a team, be honest with them before you lean on them. Most people know that it’s a good idea to ask for help. The honesty part, why the help is needed in the first place, is often a critical juncture that gets sidestepped, generally because the leader does not want to look weak or vulnerable. Vulnerability leads to connection, and people love to help people, so it’s a win-win that makes everyone feel better. However, if the leader is leaning for no apparent reason and people get upset because their seemingly terse boss is dumping more work on them––again––then a bad day can get a lot worse when an opportunity to pull together turns into divisive resentment.

  • Journal without a filter. This is like sticking your head under water and screaming. What, you’ve never done that? You might write some weird stuff that no one should ever read, and you will also find some fascinating critters crawling around on rock bottom. In his latest book, Slow Productivity, Cal Newport recommends you buy an expensive notebook. I recommend you don’t do that, at least not for this. If you’re going to spend your money, I’d suggest your favorite pens (then the poison can flow out of you without a hitch). As romantic as it sounds, I don’t think you need––or want––a leather-bound journal of your unfiltered thoughts. That’s an expensive liability. Go for something you’ll have no problem tossing on the burn pile when it’s all used up. Or you can shred it. Whatever you decide, destroying your dark musings may be as cathartic as writing them.  

  • If you don’t tell your team or your journal, tell someone. No one likes a complainer, but having someone you can sit down with or call and say, “I’m having a tough time right now” is a tremendous relief. Social media doesn’t count as a person. That’s click bait. The person you tell might not have a solution. That’s OK. The whole point, and the common thread through this whole shortlist, is to stop fighting or ignoring whatever you are feeling, to feel it all instead. 

  • Invest in a hobby. As long as you don’t choose an activity like arson, scheduling time for and investing in a personal hobby can be the magic wardrobe that helps you escape a funk. Exercise, film, music, gardening, reading, trainspotting. It’s all on the table. It could be a few minutes. If it feeds the soul, it’s worth the feed.

  • Feel the space behind you. I endorse meditation as a hobby and put it in the “worth the feed” category for sure. One of the meditations that has helped me is being aware of the space behind me. This sounds strange, but it’s surprisingly helpful in moments of self doubt. When you gaze at what lies ahead, perhaps questioning the value of your existence, and then you expand your awareness to the space surrounding you, and you realize that it’s all the same awareness, and you imagine all the family and friends and defining experiences in your life, all the love that has been poured into the space that sustains you, and you know that you carry that ever-present, glowing force––your very own sun––you can feel how much support is at your back. Too heady? If you’re having a bad day, could it hurt?    

  • Do something hard. I’ll finish with this: a cold shower will wake you up. It is a reasonable idea to do things that feel good when you’re struggling. It’s also a proven fact that doing hard things builds resilience. Sometimes, when you’re in a stupor or you’re feeling unmotivated, you have to rattle your own cage. Rock bottom is a hard place––life is a hard place for that matter––and hard places call for hard work. Tie that hard work to a decent anchor, and you can climb out of any hole.

I have to give it to the moon and sun. The solar eclipse was pretty neat. I take no issue with the die-hard eclipsers, but I have to wonder. That whole show was always in the making. Is any other day any less significant? Should we be any less aware tomorrow? Perhaps this is another chance to realize that life is a series of one-time celestial events unfolding before us, leading us to an inevitable horizon where––if we pay attention and don’t get distracted––we can get a glimpse of the meaning of it all. Each moment happens once, and we get one take at each, flopping our fair share, learning as we go. As they say in Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.” For better or worse, the stars are aligned, and here we are.


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