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  • Pearce Cucchissi

The Cost of Losing Perceived Control: Unpacking the Psychological Burden on Executives

I’ve been repeatedly asked what it is that all of these executives i've encountered are seeking help with. That list, on the surface, is long and varies widely, never reaching one single endpoint. From their answers, it seems maybe the question is unclear, but I knew there was more in the places we weren't looking.

As I have drilled down underneath the layers, not only from clients and friends but with myself, there seems to be a single thread that ties many of these inefficiencies together. Control, or simply, an inability to deal with a lack of it.

Now yes, this may fit more within a certain personality type, but it seems to be a central theme. Military operators, pro athletes, leaders of the most influential companies. All driven by a fear most of us cannot admit, accept, or face.

The fear of losing control haunts the best of us in ways we struggle to accept.

This often manifests in many different ways. Addiction (seemingly healthy or unhealthy), shutting down, short tempers, difficulty communicating, anxiety, depression, micromanaging, negative personality changes. But the surface manifestation is just a symptom.

This basic issue around control never seems to resolve itself no matter where someone is within an organization or their career. Where I see this magnified is often with the executive leadership at a company who has recently moved into private equity ownership.

In this case, the executives have the responsibility of taking the majority of the load from above, and shielding the rest of the company below them. They feel they’ve lost the control they once had, exacerbating any previous issues that may have gone unnoticed and are now coming to the surface.

There not only is this shouldering of the burden from above, but of keeping the madness of running a company contained so that it doesn’t bleed into the optics of the ownership. This is a self-imposed duty taken on by the executive team and is often overlooked.

The pressure cooker we see here is not much different from what I have experienced in the military. The farther up the chain you go, the more you may see the pressure having a deep effect on the leader.

The process of instilling a culture of a true business athlete starts with practices that allow us to regain a sense of control so that we can increase stamina over time. Sometimes we bleed energy more quickly by resisting what sits outside of our control, and this too gets in the way of our stamina.

This concept of the business athlete is one I view to be potentially the highest leverage action we can take. If you went back 20 years, you wouldn’t see the training of the mind in professional sports that we see now. Today, in every team, they practice tools and techniques to train the players' minds for performance longevity. They even have full teams dedicated to this.

So why is the business world behind? Simply, we often don’t acknowledge the demand that is placed because we cannot visibly see the load these leaders are put under and the toll it can take on them.

I’m not here to say the environment needs to be easier, just that leadership should be supported in their own journey of building resilience and satisfaction so they can improve the experience of themselves and the performance of the company.

The level of business athleticism is directly linked to the company’s bottom line. Take the example of a hiring freeze. Revenue expectations increase and now more expectation is placed on each individual. The leader loses “control” by not being able to bring on more help and might be ill-equipped to help their team increase their own capacity for performance. This leads to lost business and increased turnover, which in this case can be shown to cost over 213% of yearly total compensation.

The true measure of a 'business athlete' is not in how they wield power, but in how they manage the weight of responsibility and the fear of losing control.

There is another option here during the hiring freeze scenario. Each business development person, for example, has a capacity to handle new business. Often in the current case, these people are maxed out. They would like to be able to take on more, they feel they are at their limit, and they are burnt out. This creates more feelings of being out of control and stuck and leads to performance declines.

However, if we can help these individuals train to be able to take on a higher load, physically, mentally, and emotionally, they will not only feel better about themselves but feel happier, more motivated, and this will increase their capacity for new business. It's no different from an athlete training to reach the next level; they eventually get comfortable with their new state.

The cost of ignoring the psychological well-being of leaders can surpass any financial metric, impacting the very soul of an organization.

In this example, it saves the team from the cost of hiring new employees (which at this point isn’t even an option) and allows them to hit the numbers they need to experience growth.

These examples show the truly infinite value of taking a human-centric approach to growth. We often seem to allow this to slip, as people are supposed to “sink or swim,” or “figure it out on their own.” I have seen this fail miserably in the military, professional athletics, and business.

Humans need and have always needed an external eye to maximize growth, we know this, but sometimes it is seen as weakness. But all the greats have had this help, and when leadership comes to a point where they need to increase their own mental capacity, especially for their health and satisfaction, we need to be able to provide them the tools.

Human capital effectiveness is about empowering people and teams to create their own self-efficacy. To simply be aware of blockages, and have the foresight and courage to not let these blockages derail progress.

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