With Martin G. Moore

Episode #131

The Emotional Toll of Leadership: Successful self-management

I run into leaders all the time who struggle with the personal impact that a leadership role has on their lives. It can be emotionally draining, and it can have far reaching impacts through every aspect of their lives.

To be a successful leader in the longer term, and at the most senior levels, you first have to learn how to manage yourself. As they say during the airline safety briefings, “if oxygen is required, fit your own mask first before assisting others”.

Strong leaders are strong people – strong enough to shoulder the duty of care that comes with a leadership career, and equipped to help others develop.

This week, we look at the common types of fallout that many leaders experience, and provide seven practical tips for dealing with the emotional toll of leadership.


Get yours delivered straight to your inbox by filling out the form below 👇

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Episode #131 The Emotional Toll of Leadership: Successful self-management

7 steps to successfully self-manage the emotional toll of leadership

Many leaders struggle with the personal impact their leadership role has on their lives. Not only can it be emotionally draining but it can have far reaching impacts through every aspect of their lives.

To be a successful leader in the longer term, and at the most senior levels, you first have to learn how to manage yourself. As they say during the airline safety briefings:

“If oxygen is required, fit your own mask first before assisting others.” 

That’s not selfish. It’s recognition that unless you are stable and fully functional, you won’t be in a position to help anyone else. Strong leaders are strong people who can shoulder the duty of care that comes with a leadership career, and are equipped to help others develop in the right way by setting an example of grace under pressure.

Common types of emotional fallouts

There are many ways in which we experience the emotional toll of leadership. We take on accountability for ourselves and others navigating a myriad of uncertainty, complexity, and risk.

Great leaders thrive on the big challenges. They’re the first to step into the bridge when the chips are down.

Here are the 9 most common causes and conditions that drive emotional fatigue, imbalance, and dysfunction.

1) Personal risk

Leadership roles all involve an element of personal risk. By definition, as a leader, you take on accountability for the outcomes of people, other than just yourself. And this risk comes in several forms.

First, we have performance risk. As an individual contributor you have a high degree of control over your outcomes, once that task has been assigned to you. However, as a leader, your control is diluted because the higher up you go, the less control you have, but the greater your accountability for almost everything. This is one reason why top executives get paid the dizzy dollars. They’re the ones who take accountability for what goes on in the deepest, darkest corners of their organisations. Shouldering this on a constant basis can be hard, especially when the organisation is underperforming or has systemic issues that take time to resolve.

Another type is popularity risk. As a leader not everyone is going to like you, I’m sure you’ve already found that out and you’ve just got to be okay with that. Making necessary but unpopular decisions can take its toll even on the strongest leaders. This goes against our innate human drive for love and acceptance and this can really create some dissonance for us. Listen to Episode 1 ‘Respect Before Popularity’ of our No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast for more about this topic.

Another is career risk, and although your career is progressing, a big stuff up may stop you. Sometimes when your personal stock is going up really quickly, that’s exactly when other political players in your organisation want to try to bring you down the most. Tall poppies do draw attention.

2) Fatigue and burnout

There’s an ever-present threat of fatigue and burnout in leadership roles. Realising this early in your career is super useful. The objective is to make your workload sustainable over a long period, so you’ve got to really know yourself. Everyone is different, and it depends on who you are as an individual and what your current circumstances are.

For example, at the moment, I can work a 60 hour week effortlessly. Why? Because the rest of my life around that allows me to. I can play golf on a Monday morning or a Thursday afternoon if I want. I don’t have to run around after kids. My wife, Kathy is incredibly supportive, and handles almost everything to do with our personal living requirements. I’ve built in heaps of leisure time. So under my current circumstances, I could do this indefinitely. And if I need to spike up to a 70 or 80 hour week, once in a while, that’s manageable too.

I know people in very different stages of their lives where it’s not so easy. They have the constant demands of young children, where both partners work, cook, shop, clean, make school lunches, which all has to happen on a daily basis. Not to mention taking the kids to and from their respective sporting fixtures and extracurricular commitments. This puts the workweek into a completely different context. So, working 60 hours a week for a job in those circumstances may have an entirely different result. Bottom line is, know yourself and manage this one for the long term.

3) Conflict

As a leader, conflict simply comes with the territory. Everything you do as a leader, potentially involves conflict; disagreeing with your boss or a peer in a meeting, giving one-on-one feedback to one of your people, negotiating, setting priorities and resourcing discussions.

If you aren’t 100% comfortable in conflict situations, then it can have a devastating effect on your psyche. This is actually a lot more common than you think. Conflict aversion, in my mind, is the number one career killer.

I know a lot of really senior executives who hate the leisure part of their jobs and avoid doing leadership work at any cost. Instead, they focus on the technical parts of their role, the stuff they can manage with their intellect and their experience. Then, they begin to believe their own bullshit that they’re actually good leaders. I’m sure you’ve bumped into a few of these in your career!

4) Relationship fallout

As your career becomes more demanding, you can spend a lot of time focusing on that, to the exclusion of your most important relationships. Even if you’re really mindful of this, there’s going to be times when you have to make choices about how you spend your time and energy.

Somehow, funnily enough, your career tends to be the most important thing at any given time, right? Well, that’s until it’s not. Until one day you realise that your relationship is in dire straits and you need to do something to repair it. Every single trade off that you make like this, can have an emotional toll, as you weigh up the guilt of what you’re giving up with the obligation of what you’re choosing to do.

5) Psychological safety

The knowledge that there are people above you who can radically impact your career, your livelihood, and your lifestyle, at the drop of a hat, can be daunting. To make matters worse, as you go higher up in organisations, you experience how flaky some of the people really are, and see how they can hold significant influence over the outcomes that might await you. Not letting that affect your mood and outlook is often a little harder than it sounds.

6) Dissonance of values

It’s often the case that senior leaders ask their people to do things that may be at odds with their value set. Big lesson for those of you who want to be great leaders, don’t ever do that to your people. It is reprehensible behaviour.

I had a client whose direct boss wanted her to make fraudulent and dishonest statements to cover up from one of the bosses own transgressions. This was supposed to be done in the name of loyalty. Now, fortunately, this particular woman had high integrity and values and refused to do so. But this has fallout too. (Refer to my previous point on psychological safety).

7) Politics and positioning

There is no shortage of people who are willing to take you down in the political crossfire of a large company. The more you stand out, the more people will want to level you back to the pack.

I had a particularly brutal experience when I was at Aurizon. One of the executives took a dislike to me for a range of reasons. First of all, I called him out on his bullshit in a talent management session with the executive team, that wasn’t good. I did this entirely respectfully, but it didn’t appear to matter. He was waxing lyrical about one of his senior leaders and what a sensational performer he was. After he’d finished, the head of HR asked if anyone else had a view. I paused and looked around at the other faces, all of whom were reluctant to talk. I jumped in and basically said that I had a diametrically opposite view of this particular individual. It wasn’t just an opinion. I had a lot of reasoning with examples, but I basically spoke to his checkbox mentality, the fact that he had almost no capacity for complex thought and that he was a total ‘yes man’. Now, once I broke the ice on that, my colleagues all piled in and supported my views, but the exec in question never forgave me, funnily enough. So from then on he did everything he could to discredit me. This wouldn’t have worked, except that he had the ear of the CEO and a couple of other fawning ‘yes men’ on the exec team, who’d previously had their eyebrows singed by my willingness to call a spade a spade. And yes, this does take a toll.

8) Fear of failure

When you’re continually exposed to the high stakes environment, the fear of failure is ever present. Interestingly, many very successful people in all walks of life, ascribe some of their greatest achievements to their healthy fear of failure. But this can really weigh quite heavily on you emotionally, especially if you’re a business owner.

I remember having a coffee one day with an old colleague of mine, and he told me that what keeps him awake at night literally is his fear of the business failing and his 50 plus staff finding themselves out of a job. I gave him a little reminder about a couple of things. His duty of care should be significant, but not all consuming. His employees all have their path as well, and contribute daily to the success or failure of the company. It’s not just him as the CEO/founder. They made an adult decision to join the company, knowing it was a tech startup, so try not to take the weight of their choice on. When I looked at his face afterwards, I knew I hadn’t convinced him one iota.

9) Helplessness and futility

Having little control over your surroundings, but high levels of accountability for results can weigh on you. For my part, I absolutely love taking accountability for things. It’s an opportunity to test my capabilities, ingenuity, and performance in the most stressful environments, but not everyone’s wired that way.

You can see people who struggle with accountability because they always have someone or something else to blame for their failures. I remember many years ago, having a stoush with an executive who was one of my peers at the time. He was general manager of distribution for our company and the state branches, which were accountable for sales, reported into him. In every monthly executive meeting, he would report on sales being below target, and he’d always follow it up the same statement,

“Well, you know, the state managers are accountable for sales, so there’s not much I can do about that”.

Seriously, I felt like I was on candid camera. Is it just me, or is that a blame shift of monumental proportions? It was all I could do to stop myself breaking out into the rendition of Will Ferrell’s line from the movie Zoolander:

“I feel like I’m taking crazy pills”.

Now leaving all that aside, it’s hard to have decisions made above you that are out of your control, but which radically affect your potential for performing at your best. When you have people above you who do irrational things, that’s what I like to call a constraint of your job. If you can live with the constraint, accept it, and do what you can to get the optimal performance within that constraint. If you can’t live with the constraint, vote with your feet.

7 top tips for managing the emotional toll of leadership

1. Commit to leading 

The very first thing you need to do is commit wholeheartedly to the discipline of leadership. Many people who are nominally in leadership roles still avoid the work of leadership. They avoid hard conversations. They push accountability for failure onto others. They dip down into the people’s work because that’s a hell of a lot easier than dealing with a non-performer. You need to embrace the challenge and relish the opportunity to make a real difference to others. Enjoy the results that come when you genuinely build a high performing team and not just bullshit other people that you’ve built a high performing team. The solace you’re going to get from the fact that you are facing things that many leaders won’t will be what will make you great. You need to feel that strength of your conviction.

2. Develop good habits

Aristotle said “Excellence is not an act, but a habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, and brave by doing brave acts”.

So what would be helpful habits to avoid the emotional toll? First of all, learn to decompress and compartmentalise.

I know leaders who after a tough day at work, go home and kick the dog, yell at the kids and ignore their wives. If you have a tough day at the office, you have to leave it in the office. If not, you’re just compounding the felony. Now, not only have you had a shit day at work, you’ve also missed the opportunity to have some real joy with your family. Work out how to transition between the areas of your life and compartmentalise the bad stuff.

One habit to avoid is self-medicating. Alcohol and drugs can make you feel a hell of a lot better for a brief moment, but when you come out of it, whatever problems you had before are still there. This has always been a go-to for me. I’m not a huge drinker, but the sharing of a bottle of wine over dinner with your partner can be an attractive habit that’s counterproductive to your emotional wellbeing. You end up not running on all cylinders when you’re at work and being exhausted when you’re not.

3. Maintain your mental and physical health

Physical exercise is beneficial in so many ways, and it’s also the very first thing to get compromised, when the stress mounts.

I struggled with this one, my whole executive career and sometimes I still struggle with it now. I’m an all or nothing guy. When I focus on my fitness, I’m running a decent marathon. When I’m not, I can go for days making other stuff much more important. Having said that, I’ve never compromised my mental health. It’s always been a priority for me to maintain my strength of resilience, perspective, attitude, and positive outlook on life. It helps a lot to have an internal locus of control.

Now I firmly believe that I control and influence a huge part of the environment I exist in. I feel really comfortable about that. I never feel as if I’m a victim or that I don’t have choices. This can be enormously settling in terms of mental and emotional wellbeing.

4. Keep your sense of humour

Business is serious, but it doesn’t have to be humourless. It’s really important to maintain a sense of humour. I would often break up the tension in meetings with a joke, almost all of which were appropriate for the audience.

Laughter is food for the soul. It regenerates and it nourishes. Humourless people seem to just miss out on so much. Sure, there’s plenty of time for sombre analysis and discussion, but bringing some joy to the people around you is just as important in a leader, as many of the more recognised leadership responsibilities, and your people pick up on it too.

You need to give them permission to have a laugh sometimes. It helps them to enjoy their work. One of my senior people once found a rather unique way to tell me that he was 100% committed to the company.

‘Marty’, he said, ‘I give you 40% on Mondays, 30% on Tuesdays, 20% on Wednesdays and 10% on Thursdays. That way, I can take Fridays off without feeling guilty”. Thanks, Danny, that was actually funny!

5. Maintain your perspective

These days I do a lot of work with leadership teams on just that, maintaining their perspective. For most of us, our jobs aren’t the high stakes we’d like to think they are. We’re not landing space shuttles. We’re not performing cardio thoracic surgery. No one’s dying on the table.

Now I know this sounds terrible, but it’s only money. If someone is seriously injured at work, that’s worth worrying about. But most of the things we worry about simply aren’t worth it. A million dollar mistake can sound like it’s terrible and be really devastating personally, but if your company’s making a billion dollars in EBIT, that’s a rounding error. So keep it in perspective. Also realise that “time heals all wounds.” Today, the sky may be falling, but how big of a deal will it actually be in two weeks time?

6. Don’t over-function for those around you

This is what happens when we do other people’s jobs for them. Why do we do it? Well, as I said earlier, it’s easier and faster to do it yourself than it is to lead the other person to do it.

If you over-function for your people, a few things are going to happen. They learn that they don’t have to perform to a standard. You’ll cover any holes they leave. The good ones, get demotivated really quickly. Remember, the fastest way to lose your best people, is to not deal with your worst people. And for you, you end up with a continuous workload of shit, because not only do you need to do your job, you need to do the jobs of your under-performers.

And while we’re at it, don’t take on your peers’ work either. I’ve had colleagues in the past who, for all the right reasons, take on work that’s not theirs to take on because they have a high sense of duty to the organisation. This is really noble, but it’s actually ineffective. It’s not your accountability, it’s theirs. If you succeed, they’ll take the credit, and if you fail, they’ll point the finger at you. It is an absolute no win situation.

7. Learn to make the right choice in the moment.

Every day we’re faced with hundreds of micro choices. Each of these either takes us closer to or further away from our desired end game. If you want to be a great leader, you need to make the choices that might take you there.

Choose respect over popularity. Choose to have the hard conversation. Choose to put self-interest aside for the good of the team. Choose to hold people to account for their behaviour. And make the right personal choices.

Remember that no one is perfect and we just have to make more of the right choices, than the easy choices. At the end of the day each of us is simply a product of this.

All the choices we’ve ever made, big or small, easy or hard, good or bad have led us exactly to where we are today. So don’t complain if you aren’t where you think you should be. Look at your past choices and decide to make better ones in the future.

Leadership can take its toll mentally, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. The challenge for you is to do the work that will reduce this toll and make your leadership career sustainable. You’ll be a happier person and much more likely to be able to positively influence the people who rely on you for strength and guidance.


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership