A few years ago, I worked with an extremely intelligent CEO named Robert (not his real name). Robert had just taken over the reins of a startup, and under his guidance, the company doubled its revenue and added over 35 new positions.
In that year, Robert changed, too. He almost doubled in size as well, gaining close to 45 pounds. Now, he suffers from sleep apnea and takes painkillers for knee and back pain, and recently, his doctor recommended he go on statins to lower his cholesterol.
Only by narrowly defining success can we say that Robert’s company is a success. If we measure success using a triple bottom line—taking into account not just financial, but also social and environmental impacts—then the doubling of profits at the cost of Robert’s physical health is not a success at all.
Robert’s case is unfortunately all too common. Achieving success by going over boundaries, and pushing past our limits, takes a toll. Sometimes it’s the cost of our health, but other times it’s the cost of the company itself. Consider the case of Uber, whose ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick grew the company with a policy of “don’t ask for permission, but apologize later.” Eventually his boundary crashing strategy came back to haunt him, as that same aggressive, “take no prisoners” attitude created a company culture that exploded in scandal, leading to his ouster.
En route to success, whatever boundaries we blow past—be they our own health boundaries, legal boundaries, or relationship boundaries—there is always a cost.
I’m reminded of Laurence Gonzales’ book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Gonzales interviewed survivors of shipwrecks, plane crashes, and other catastrophes to find out why some survive and others don’t: Is there a personality trait that increases the chance of survival? Or, is just random luck?
He found something interesting: the classic hero or macho archetype doesn’t fare well in survival situations. Why? Because they overestimate themselves. They push past their limits. Actually, they don’t just push past limits; they don’t even see them. They don’t see reality, just their idealized identity.
The moral of the story is that being a hero sometimes works, but if your heroism means pushing past limits which should be respected, you put yourself and others in danger.
There’s an even bigger reason to consider our own and others’ boundaries in measuring success. Boundaries aren’t just personal. They often belong to the problem itself, to the system we’re in. When we push past limits, we do so by overlooking critical warning signs, the red flags that point to weaknesses in the system. Even if we personally have the stamina, intelligence, or strength to get something launched, or accomplish a goal, other people eventually have to make that work. If the system’s capacity doesn’t match our own, we’ll fail.
Sometimes the situation calls for a heroic effort, and sometimes it calls for respecting limitations. How do we know which one is called for? When it comes to pushing past limits, I ask my coaching clients these three questions to determine whether the situation calls for heroic action or not:
Is it mine?
While huge workloads seem to be an inevitable part of business today, our workloads are often the result of edges: things we consciously or unconsciously avoid, procrastinate about, or neglect. For instance, many people have an edge to delegate, to push things back onto people. Now, this can be a failure to coach people, impatience, micromanaging, or just being overly helpful. Whatever the issue, chances are a significant amount of the work on your desk right now doesn’t belong to you.
Leaders are by definition great problem solvers, great advice givers, and often great at helping others. But in a leadership role, you’re not solving the other person’s problem. When leaders are too helpful, or too identify with having all the answers, they are going past their limits. Their job is not to solve problems, but to transform the people around them into better problem solvers.
Take a look at the tasks on your desk, the meetings in your agenda, and the emails in your inbox. Be ruthless, and either delete or send back to the owner anything that cannot be answered in the affirmative: Is it mine?
Is it mission-critical?
Years ago, I worked with the Portland Police Bureau on designing a crisis intervention training. One of the things we taught was the Crisis Cycle. The Crisis Cycle shows what happens to us under extreme stress. In a normal frame of mind, we can talk calmly, and use reason and logic. We’re capable of answering questions and thinking abstractly—i.e., imagining what-ifs, planning the future, and seeing alternatives.
But the more we’re under pressure, the more our stress levels rise and adrenaline and cortisol start pumping, the less cognitive abilities we have. We can only think about what’s immediately in front of us. When our brains are in survival mode—focused on the immediate danger and blocking out anything peripheral—we have acute tunnel vision and lose the big picture.
This state of mind is perfect for hand-to-hand combat or running from a mastodon, but it’s disaster for a leader. And yet, for too many leaders, it’s their daily modus operandi.
When everything that comes across your desk is treated like a mastodon, you’re in crisis mode all day long. But when everything is a priority, you focus on the wrong things, or give scarce resources to less important things and neglect what’s most important. And most important, when you are in fight-or-flight mode all day, you lose the big picture. Your decision making, communication, and ability to manage suffers—along with your health.
Is it systemic?
Limitations aren’t always personal. They belong to the system. If you are a teacher trying to manage 35 students, your struggles aren’t just personal, but reflect the larger problem in the school system. If your sales numbers are terrible, yes, you might be a bad salesperson, but you have to also consider the quality of your product. If you continue to coach your direct report to no avail, you have to consider not just your coaching ability, but the person’s ability and desire to learn.
When you single-handedly try to solve a problem, having given it your absolute best shot, at some point you have to consider it may be a systemic problem. If you insist on solving it, not only will you injure yourself in the process, but more critically, you deprive the system from learning about and solving its own problem.
Problems taken too personally miss the big picture. More importantly, taking everything on as your own doesn’t send information where it needs to go. Think of yourself as a canary in the coal mine: if you just “power through,” you haven’t alerted others to what could be a very serious problem.
Sometimes heroic action is called for, but often, it’s a habit. Before you blow past your boundaries, take a reality check—and a health check—by asking yourself these three important questions.