Some executives are too hard on themselves. They anticipate failure or disaster when all they’re really facing is the relentless, ongoing effort that’s necessary for leadership and management success. They let fear and anxiety take up headspace and sap their energies, when what they really need to do is apply their intensity to thoughtful decision-making and focused thinking.

Instead of Getting Down on Yourself

Here’s an illustration: Recently I had an extensive back-and-forth via phone and email with a nonprofit leader who was legitimately exhausted, both physically and mentally. He’d been through a board meeting, lots of work-related travel, and several employee and funder challenges in just 10 days, and he still faced a tough slog for the foreseeable future.

He declared that too many crucial initiatives were not progressing quickly or effectively enough, and expressed concerns about everything that was likely to go wrong — including the possibility that his performance would be considered insufficient.

I asked a lot of questions about what’s actually not working, what’s going reasonably well even if it feels bad, and what still needs to be addressed. When the exec responded with increasingly reasonable consideration of alternatives and approaches, I pointed out his noticeably more pragmatic response.

His next email thanked me for the acknowledgment, ending with: “Trying mightily to keep from totally crashing.”

I wrote back:

Stop trying. Too much effort, too little return. Trying is for skill development, not equanimity. Instead — what are you grateful for? What are you relieved about?

His response was:

Love that. Thanks.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

This guy is still on the hook for all his responsibilities, including employee misbehavior and every market demand that needs to be met. So why would he feel comforted by the instruction to stop trying?

Although there’s usually a payoff from trying to improve our skills through repetitive application, trying to feel okay by requiring ourselves to hold it together and make everything work is both unrealistic and a misuse of energy and focus.

When we’re worn out from effort, the mountains ahead of us can look higher and more dangerous than the ones we’ve already crossed. Insisting we don’t feel scared or challenged is not nearly as useful as learning from the experience.

After looking back to see what we’ve already accomplished and survived, it’s worth analyzing the experience: What approaches succeeded? Who contributed to the success? Where did we get lucky? Evaluating reality gives us the chance to appreciate it — and to share our gratitude.

Learning from Bad and Good Luck

Similarly, it’s helpful to recognize what didn’t work. Could we have handled things differently? Good to know for next time. Is there anyone who needs an apology for behavior we didn’t control, things we shouldn’t have said, or results that didn’t pan out?

Sometimes, when we’re fortunate — right place, right time — it’s due to prior efforts; other times, it’s for no apparent reason. Take it as an opportunity to do a happy dance, embrace the serendipity, and return to feeling grateful and showing appreciation wherever we can.

A week after our communication, this nonprofit leader had two big successes. I hope he’ll revel in them at least a little bit, express gratitude where he can, and learn from the positive experience.