The Dark Side of Leadership

I was talking recently about cultural leadership with a colleague, himself a cultural leader of tremendous insight and experience. He noted that people don’t really talk about the emotional challenges one faces as a leader and that few people (and none of the leadership literature) address this. Here are a few thoughts he shared about what he finds challenging:

  • Always trying to run ahead of the pack;
  • Looking in the hat for the next rabbit;
  • Just plain stress and exhaustion;
  • Lately a new increased call for older leaders to leave and make room for a new “visionary/creative” group of younger leaders, when they themselves do not understand the history and pathways to success in the field;
  • Loneliness;
  • The fear that you have lost your mojo, or;
  • …that maybe the hat is empty.


I can attest from my personal leadership experience to these being very real concerns. In order to persevere through these challenges, one needs a strong personal infrastructure, both within and without. I offer a few suggestions for boosting personal infrastructure that would work for me and can maybe work for you:

  • surround yourself with people who love you at home [a challenge when you’re single, but friends count];
  • surround yourself with people who love you at work – not sycophants – but people who love you enough to give you honest and constructive feedback and who continue to love you as you evolve based on that feedback;
  • slow down and take the time needed to asses where you are and where you’re going;
  • get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and don’t drink too much;
  • but drink a lot of water – stay hydrated [seriously, this matters, especially if you live in the desert];
  • create and use a feedback mechanism so you can be like a one-person learning organization;
  • communicate regularly with staff and other stakeholders;
  • give yourself permission to have fun at work;
  • give yourself permission to get annoyed about work, but try not to show it;
  • when you fear the hat is empty, take stock of where you’ve been and how far you’ve come;
  • amaze yourself by being yourself; it’s not magic.

Now, if I could just actualize my own advice…

(Image: Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, advertising poster by Strobridge Litho. Co., Cincinnati & New York, 1899. Public domain)



About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
This entry was posted in Arts management, Personal infrastructure and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Dark Side of Leadership

  1. My solution since 1983? In my 20s–at one of my earliest professional jobs–my boss took off for 3 weeks to the Galapagos Islands. She left a list parting out her jobs to several of us during her absence. She came back with such a spring in her step. It taught me that no one is indispensable AND that trusting staff members matters. And we were all urged to do the same.
    for over 30 years, 26 as an ED, I have done the same. At least 3 weeks, sometimes, 4 of off-the-grid, no email, no cell-phone, travel. When I get back, it is like having a new job. And the staff has a deeper understanding of what I do. I plan these vacations a year in advance and pay for them 6 months in advance. I have NEVER cancelled one. (And I negotiate this as part of every new job!).
    Moreover at every ED job, I have recrafted vacation and accounting policies to disallow carry-over of more than 40 hours of vacation annually (also helps the balance sheet). I urge everyone to TAKE their time. Others will pick up the slack.
    These are 60 hour jobs–always have been, always will be. It is important to have time to think, to refresh and to REST.

    • lindaessig says:

      Margot: this is such an important issue. We are indoctrinated well on to work work work, in an unsustainable spiral of ever increasing expectations, resulting in LOWER productivity and, potentially, total burnout. I have been my own enemy in this regard until recently, but now consciously say, “time for some down time.”

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