In his work on the perils of success, John O’Neil (1993) provides leaders with a handy way to follow their own progress on the path to burnout and entropy. He compares this path to an S-curve, where entropy begins near the top. As we move toward the top, we start to change the way we behave. Our days seem mindless, we experience more anxiety and our less likely to be growing and learning. In addition, we find ourselves in conflict more with our environment and peers. O’Neil argues that when we reach this top, we need to take a step back and observe our needs and ourselves.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke, offers an addendum to O’Neil: we don’t just need to step back to observe, we need to step back to avoid hurting ourselves and others. Ariely (2010) introduced the concept of “self-herding,” which is to say that humans make decisions about future behavior based on past behavior. Therefore, when we act out in anger in a situation we are more likely to behave the same way the next time we encounter that situation, whether angry or not.
I believe this is how well meaning leaders develop into terrible bosses. As the approach the tip of the S-curve, as burnout and entropy sneak in, they act out against their people. The next time they face a similar situation, whether rested or not, they may act the same way. Gradually, they turn toward this dark side.
O’Neil’s (1993) path to entropy becomes even more important if this is true. Leaders must develop awareness for when anxiety, conflict and burnout creep in. When this happens, the not only need to observe but they need to resist negative actions – as they may have lasting effect on themselves and their team.
Ariely, D. (2010) The upside of irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. New York: Harper
O’Neil, J. R. (1993). The Paradox of Success: A Book of Renewal for Leaders. New York: Penguin Putnam Books.
David Burkus is the editor of LDRLB. He speaks, consults and serves on the faculty of management at Oral Roberts University’s College of Business.