At last, the issue of executive stress is opening up. Lloyds Banking Group is setting up contingency plans in case the Chief Executive, Antonio Horta-Osorio, is unable to return from sick leave by the end of the year. As someone who’s been helping leaders to “keep pressure positive” for themselves and others for many years, there are a number of things that strike me about the latest developments at Lloyds.
To start with, while levels of sympathy for Mr Horta-Osorio’s position may vary, one thing is clear. His situation has been openly described as stress-related, in a way that’s still very unusual for a CEO. It would be interesting to know who decided to be this frank with the media and shareholders at the outset. Did the UK Government’s stake in Lloyds have anything to do with it, or was it a judgement call in a damage limitation exercise? In any event, I believe the direct, no-nonsense style of the official communications from Lloyds has taken us a step forward in the fight against work-related stress.
Hopefully, these events will push the dangers of extreme pressure higher up the boardroom agenda. General awareness of workplace stress has improved, but there’s an urgent need for senior teams to manage the risks to themselves – not least because of the knock-on effect on the rest of the organisation. It’s true that lack of control is a major source of stress for people in less well-paid roles. It’s also evident that many leaders need high levels of resilience just to make it to the top. But none of this detracts from the simple fact that everyone has their limits. The many leaders who fail to recognise this put themselves, their teams and their organisation in danger.
So, is there no way back for a CEO after taking time out to recover from stress? Or is the strongest leader one who faces up to the problem, seeks medical treatment, and returns with increased resilience to pick up from where they left off? It really depends whether you see the problem as an underlying weakness that’s been there all along, or as a matter of a highly resilient person going beyond their limits and needing time out to recover.
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