The leader’s view

It's whiny at the top: Why leaders so often give off a whiff of self pity—and why they must be taught not to.

The other day my 11-year-old daughter Scout asked me, more or less out of the blue, whether I ever feel sorry for myself. I said I was sure I do, but I was stumped to tell her when. "When you're about to set off on a long run?" she suggested. Yeah, I acknowledged, but then couldn't think of too many more regular occasions for self-pity.

I have a loving family, I have plentiful friends, I have meaningful work, usually enough but not too much. I know how to spend my spare time and spare dimes. And what worries and frustrations I have generally seem of my own making, or part of a normal life, or both.

And aside from rainy days and Mondays, I think most people feel that way about their lives—including a lot of people who I think have it worse than I do. People in wheelchairs never admit to thinking, "Why me?" Firemen never think of themselves as "heroes," and they don't whine about the boredom of the job either. And what does everyone say who came to riches from rags? "We never knew we were poor."

You know what kind of people feel sorry for themselves the most? In my experience, it's powerful people: leaders of small organizations, or departments inside big organizations, or big organizations.

You know why?

Because their fate, ironically, seems less in their control than ours seems in our control.

No matter how hard they worked to achieve their leadership position, they feel thrust into it.

No matter how easy it would be for them to cash out and move on, they can't see that path.

And no matter how good a leadership team they've built around them, no one works harder or thinks more clearly than they. They are Andy Griffith, the only sane adult in Mayberry, surrounded and supported by the doltish, the deranged and the daft.

And they have payroll to meet! Also, regulations are too strict, taxes are too high, the media is too liberal. And worst of all, no one—not employees, the customers, the investors—feels sorry for them!

Quite the contrary: People sniff out self-pity in leaders, and they find it. They disdain the big-city mayor who seems pained to take media questions. They despise the director of a failing nonprofit who bores the board with weedy details of projects and daily problems, to show them how hard she's working and how much she has to put up with. They depose the oil company CEO who lets slip during an environmental disaster, "I want my life back."

Leaders are at once the most self-pitying people in our society, and the least pitied by others. People who help them communicate—hell, all of us—should keep that in mind. If we work for a put-upon leader who we like, we should strive, ourselves, to be more Opie and less Barney. If we invest in an organization and smell self-sorrow at the top, we should run. And if we somehow find ourselves in a position to get rid of a leader who has begun to see him- or herself as a victim of circumstance, we should do so, and find a proven winner and happy warrior for a replacement.

A leader is a dealer in hope, Napoleon said. You can't give other people hope if you're feeling sorry for yourself.

The one thing we should not be, when we discover that a leader wishes he or she were anywhere else but here—even a leader making a great deal more money and possessing a much higher social status than we—is surprised. —DM

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