• Jim Denning

Too Wise to Lead.

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

Dionysius II was a King in Sicily around 500 BC. Dionysius II was a ruthless and tyrannical leader who made many enemies over the course of his reign. He so feared assassination that he slept surrounded by a moat and only allowed his daughters to shave his beard. One day, one of his subjects, named Damocles, came into his court speaking all manner of flattery. He lavished the king with complements, lamenting how wonderful it would be to have all the power and wealth of the king. Dionysius II grew annoyed with Damocles so he asked him, “Would you like to be the king for a day?” An ecstatic Damocles jumped at the chance to be king. In the modern world we would label Damocles a “brown-noser” or a “yes-man.”

True to his word, Dionysius made Damocles the king for a day…with one provision. Dionysius II suspended a large sword over the throne hung by a single horse hair to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Dionysius II wanted Damocles to experience the fear and anxiety of living in constant fear that was the reality of sitting on the throne. Damocles finally begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

For Love or Money

The story of the Sword of Damocles illustrates beautifully why I chose not to pursue a career in management. While I never expected to have a sword suspended over my head as an executive, I have seen the ruthlessness of office politics. However, for me and people like me who battle with anxiety and depression already, accepting a position that would add anxiety to my default state seems counterproductive to say the least. The calculus for me was simple: I could make a good living as an employee and be happy with that, or I could move into management, make a little more money, but be miserable.

One would think that this would be the end of the conversation, unfortunately it was not. Many times, throughout my career I was approached about moving into a management position. While this was always a compliment, I knew I would suffer in a role with greater responsibilities. I was not leadership material––despite what others thought they saw in me.

I also knew turning down such opportunities would be a career limiting move. While I did not want to move into management, it is definitely considered a black mark on your record to decline a promotion, you are considered not to be a “team player.” What was harder was trying to justify why I turned down the position. The truth was never an option. I could not say to my boss “well I have depression and anxiety and just the thought of managing people freaks me out.” Many people, especially those who chose a role in management often see mental health issues as weakness. I am hoping to change that.

Not Leadership Material

There are many people like me in the corporate world. Some have anxiety and depression while some just want to go to work and do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. It is okay not to be a leader, it is okay to see work as that thing you do to pay bills and nothing more. When I was growing up there as a radio personality who would say on Friday’s “You work to live. You don’t live to work…and if you do I hope you don’t live near me.”

Many companies have the culture that sacrifice for the company is the highest of virtues regardless of the cost. I cannot count the number of times I heard this said to me and others. “What do you mean you can’t work this weekend?” “I promised the business we will have those reports done by Tuesday. You know how important this is!” The problem is that the protracted stress that can come from “doing more with less” as many companies are prone to espouse can take a heavy toll on someone who has already been “too strong for too long.” The true irony is that pushing people beyond their limits is actually counterproductive in that it inevitably causes those people to seek the only remedy that is often available––which is FMLA or perhaps permanent disability.

Recently, the World Health Organization conducted a study that concluded that loss of work because of mental health issues which are exacerbated by mentally unhealthy work environments costs the global economy over $1 trillion per year. They concluded the following:

Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity[1] . Unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for mental health problems, while returning to, or getting work, is protective. A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated.

I encourage you to read the entire study.

No Throne Needed

Many companies now have adopted proactive strategies for employee wellness such as discounted gym memberships and health fairs, but I am not aware of any who include mental health training for their management teams. I believe a foundational understanding of how long-term effects of stress on people who have a predisposition for sensitivity to stress could reap untold benefits. For many people, myself included, have found we do not need to sit on the throne of Dionysius II under the sword of Damocles to realize that we have no desire to lead. We simply want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Knowing that we cannot tolerate the protracted stress of leadership is not weakness, it is wisdom.