Ebbing Causes Problems for Many Mid-career Leaders

At some point in the middle stage of your leadership career, it’s common to be consumed with the thought, “there must be something more.” The job of a leader, which looked so enviable when you were younger and at lower levels, feels less satisfying than you had imagined.

You are spread so thin that, when it comes to your attention, everyone seems to get a little gypped—including yourself.

The headaches are frequent, pressures are unrelenting, and the rewards less satisfying than you had hoped. Worse, everyone is depending on you: your boss, your employees, your clients, and your family. You are spread so thin that, when it comes to your attention, everyone seems to get a little cheated—including yourself.

Male leader thinking about other careers while sitting in business meeting

Something else may nag you at this stage, something more troublesome.

You feel like you’re selling small portions of your soul each day. You find yourself making decisions at work that go against the principles you hold outside work. With each small compromise of your principles, you feel like your “work” self and your “real” self are becoming increasingly disconnected. You’re becoming someone you never thought you would be: a sell-out. You worry that you’re selling your soul, but you’re not sure who the buyer is.

When your enthusiasm for leading ebbs, you’ll call into question everything associated with your current and future identity as a leader.

I call this mid-career leadership stage “ebbing.” Not every leader experiences this distinct low point, but those who do fear that it extends indefinitely.

What if this is all there is? They worried what if becoming a more senior leader just brings more headaches, more pressure, more compromises, more ass-kicking, and less with fulfillment? How much of my soul am I willing to sell?

Woman business leader drinking coffee in cafe

Think of it this way, ebbing is a time of reflection and reassessment when you’ll have more questions than answers.

The questions you grapple with during the ebbing stage are well worth answering because they will influence the kind of leader you will ultimately be. If you find yourself deep in the ebb, pay close attention to the questions that surface for you. Recognize that, eventually, the tide will roll back in, and the decisions you make during the ebb may end up defining the extent to which your leadership makes a positive difference in the lives of those whom your leadership will touch.

Here are some questions for the ebbing leader to consider:

  • Who do I aim to be as a leader?
  • What true difference do I hope to make through my leadership?
  • How do I wish to treat people while I’m leading?
  • How do I wish to be treated as a leader?
  • What principles will I uphold?
  • What compromises am I willing to make?
  • What actions do I need to take to close the gap between the leader I aim to be and the leader I am today?
  • Can I become the leader I want to become by working where I work today?

African-american woman leader meeting new employee at cafe

When your enthusiasm for leading ebbs, you’ll call into question everything associated with your current and future identity as a leader. Rather than endure it, embrace it as an essential part of your leadership development. Do that, and you’ll benefit from what you learn when you become a senior leader.

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