Depleted Leaders Do Foolish Things | Center for Leadership | Florida International University | FIU
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Depleted Leaders Do Foolish Things

Leaders that are over worked

Have you seen someone you know become rude or snappy when they’re tired? Of course you’ve never done this. We’re talking about other people. Or when ‘someone else’ is extremely hungry – we even have a name for what can result – being ‘hangry.’

But what about when a coworker has just criticized your ideas? Or when your employee hasn’t gotten that important project into your hands on time? Or when you got wind that your raise didn’t go through? 

Each of these circumstances can actually result in you, err… I mean someone else – doing similarly unwise things because of something that psychologists call ‘ego depletion.’ Ego depletion is when your mental energy is low – when you don’t have the stockpile of mental control and stamina to be at your best.

The idea of mental stamina and ego depletion is particularly important for leaders to understand. Why? Because leadership is really hard work. Not only is it just the long hours that are tough, but it’s the mental toughness that is also required. It takes a great deal of mental and emotional control to suppress your urge to snap or make an impulsive decision when you’re depleted. It takes stamina and mental energy to make wise decisions, to act judiciously, and to be patient with others. And we lose some of this ability to do the core tasks of leadership when we’re depleted.

Findings from several recent studies point to some of the impact of ego depletion. An innovative study in the Academy of Management Journal found that poor sleep quality impairs a leader’s ability to self-regulate, and increases the chance they will lash out, demean others, or otherwise engage in abusive behaviors. Another study found that experiencing work-family conflict (such as divorce, caring for a sick parent, or birth of a child) diminishes a CEOs’ ability to self-regulate, which in turn, hampers CEOs ability to make comprehensive decisions and even negatively impacts firm performance!

And one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle with this phenomenon is that we don’t recognize we’re depleted until it is too late. We think we’re handling our stress, our exhaustion, well. But others around you are picking up on it, and it may be hampering your team and even your organization.

Effective leaders develop strategies and rituals that help them replenish and sustain resources continually. We often think that we recover from work during vacations and weekends or after work; however, leaders can replenish their energy at work and on a daily basis in small but important ways.

Self-regulated behavior is critically important for leadership effectiveness as leaders need to be in the right mindset to make sound judgment calls, maintain composure against triggers, and take the best out of their employees.