Path and Pace in Leadership

In the early 80s, specialists at the Department of Labor in Japan started noticing a disturbing pattern in the country’s workforce. Many professionals, even at the heights of their careers, where dying at work from heart attacks, strokes and stress related diseases. After much investigation, it was diagnosed that the Japanese workforce suffered from “karoshi” (過労死), a condition that can be literally translated as “death from overworking”.

These experts traced the origin of karoshi to the end of World War II, when Japan completely destroyed and devastated, began the long and arduous reconstruction project. Post-war work ethics, along with overpopulation and competition in the labor market, caused the Japanese to work to the point of death. Even today, karoshi remains a major problem to be solved in Japanese society.

Japan’s example teaches us that the task of leadership is not only to dictate the path, but also the pace to be followed. Japanese leaders are currently taking steps to minimize the pace of the workday, such as turning off lights and computers after a certain time, barring entrance to the building on weekends and even fining employees who violate those rules.

It is natural for leaders to chart the path, but setting the pace often requires intuition and wisdom. What separates great from good leaders is the ability to maintain sustained excellence. There is a fine line between high performance and burnout. From military generals to sports coaches, great leaders know how to measure their teams’ “heart rate” to know when to accelerate or slow down.

What about you? How have you stopped to assess the health of those you lead?

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