The pressure to deliver results is as old as leadership itself. Greek mythology tells the story of Dionysius, a Sicilian king, and Damocles, his fawning courtier. Damocles had a habit of going on and on about how fortunate the king was, how magnificent he must be to have such a blessed role, and how wonderful all that power and authority must feel. Dionysius, knowing how utterly ignorant Damocles was about the actual pressures of being king—particularly the pressure to get results—generously offered to switch roles with Damocles for a day.
Damocles eagerly accepted the offer—who wouldn’t want to be king for a day, right? Surrounded by every luxury, Damocles ascended to the throne. Almost as soon as he was seated, he noticed a sword hanging high above the throne, held at the sword’s pommel by a single hair of a horse’s tail, ready to fall and behead him at any moment. Unbeknownst to Damocles, Dionysius had arranged to have the sword suspended above the throne as a way of viscerally illustrating the invisible pressures of his job.
Relentless Performance Pressure
Before assuming his temporary kingly duties, Damocles had no idea that day in, day out, Dionysius had been working under such intense threat. The king’s job had seemed cushy and attractive, yet all the visible spoils of leadership were masking the tradeoff, in the form of relentless performance pressure that those spoils required. Soon Damocles buckled under the pressure, begging Dionysius to switch back to his courtier role.
For thousands of years, the Sword of Damocles has been used as a metaphor to signify the invisible pressure and threat that comes with being a leader in a position of power. Shakespeare extended the metaphor further, waxing poetic,
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
Chances are, you will never be a king or queen. But if you’re in a leadership role of any size or stature, because of the perilous pressure to get results, you’ll often have a foreboding sense that you, too, are working perilously under an unstable, drawn, and sharpened sword.
Managing the Pressure to Deliver Results
As long as you are in a leadership role, the pressure to deliver results will drive you and those you lead. To the extent that you get results, consistently and bountifully, your job as a leader will be secure. The opposite is also true. If you don’t get results, your leadership career is toast.
Results rarely come instantly or easily.
The key question for your bosses when evaluating you for a leadership role is: Can you make it happen? Attaining, achieving, or producing the desired outcome is the name of the game. If you can earn trust to make it happen, other leadership inadequacies will be more forgivable. You might talk too much, come off as arrogant, or have a lot of turnover on your team, but if you produce results, all those things will be largely overlooked. It shouldn’t be that way, and I wish it weren’t, but that’s how it often works.
Early on, the pressure to get results may gnaw at you, making you toss and turn at night. The pressure may spill over into arguments with your spouse or cause you to bite your nails down to nubs. It may, and probably will, cause you to take on too much yourself. None of that is constructive, and none of that will make a difference. You still have to make results happen if you want to remain in a leadership role.
Playing the Long Game
Results rarely come instantly or easily, and eking out more becomes harder as you advance in your leadership influence and rank. One company owner with whom I work is fond of reminding his employees that the company is in it for the long game and that business is a marathon, not a sprint.
As a new leader, you may sometimes feel like you have to accomplish everything as quickly as humanly possible. Working with urgency is good, but working with fury is not. Yes, over and over again, you’re going to have to deliver the goods, make real things happen, and move the organization forward through your work. Since getting results will be an ever-present part of your job, why not just make it part of your regular routine? Plan—work—finish. Repeat.
Do you feel a sense of pressure to get results? If achieving results is a marathon, how could you change your approach to ease the pressure?
This post is based on an excerpt from Leadership Two Words at a Time: Simple Truths for Leading Complicated People.