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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

C-suite psychosis: 10 ways to spot it and 5 ways to avoid it

While it’s hard to become a good leader, it’s even harder to stay a good leader.

C-suite psychosis: 10 ways to spot it and 5 ways to avoid it
[Sathaporn/Adobe Stock]

At this point in my career, I’ve developed a keen eye regarding when C-suite leaders have it together—and when they don’t. While it’s hard to become a good leader, it’s even harder to stay a good leader. It may look glamorous to be on top, but the truth is that it’s a high level of responsibility and stress that can wear you down, string you out, and drive you insane.

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Here are 10 signs you (or someone you know) is slipping into what I call “CEO psychosis.” I define this as a state in which a C-level executive begins to unravel under immense pressure and burnout.

10 SIGNS OF CEO PSYCHOSIS

1. Shouting and throwing things, whether at people or at other things.

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2. Micromanaging—on steroids.

3. Checked out, hard to find or schedule. Too much golfing or spinning, or otherwise unavailable somewhere on yet another retreat.

4. Twisted and dark interpretations of normal, ordinary business decisions or conversations.

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5. Radiating out unnecessary conflict.

6. A general malaise or black cloud that emanates palpably from this person’s presence.

7. Substance abuse.

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8. Strategic decisions that are counterproductive or actively destructive to the health of employees, customers/clients, and/or the enterprise itself.

9. A sense of a ship slowly sinking or a plane’s nose steadily pointing ever downward.

10. High and accelerating turnover. It may be competent people seeking a sane, humane working environment or just rats fleeing the aforementioned sinking ship.

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You know what I mean. You’ve seen this too. It’s often tragic to observe and maddening to experience. However, I offer hope: C-Suite psychosis can be avoided or ameliorated, but it requires taking care of yourself as a leader so that you can take care of others at the highest level with the optimum results for the company’s success.

Healthy people build healthy companies. Here are five suggestions you can use to get healthier if you are in charge (or that you can anonymously slip under a certain corner office’s door when no one is looking).

HOW TO KEEP YOUR COOL IN THE C-SUITE

1. Walk away from the laptop: After a certain number of hours of work in a day, you are truly no longer effective. It’s not about working hard—you are getting paid the big bucks to deliver or inspire the smartest ideas. Like an athlete’s muscles, your brilliant brain needs breaks to recover and perform. In that same vein, get some exercise! Make time for this in your day. It will keep your body and your mind right. It doesn’t have to be a huge deal or time-suck. Even just a 10-minute walk around the block between calls can have a positive impact on your mood and your output.

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2. No seriously, walk away from the laptop: You might think I’m repeating myself. I am, because there is so much emphasis (especially in the startup world) on hustle porn and grind culture. Don’t believe the hype. You know what matters? Results. If there’s one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s that face time is overrated. COVID-19 has forced executives and their teams to focus on results rather than hours chained to a computer. Hanging out with your friends or family can help you relax and gain some valuable big-picture perspective you can bring back to your work.

3. Meet your basic needs: You already know this is important but for real, get it together and rediscover fruits and vegetables. Your gut is now often called your second brain, and if you’re comfort eating or just not eating, you are slowly strangling the life out of both these brains and degrading their performance. This is science, baby—somehow your gut actually has the same neurotransmitters as your brain, and these two parts of your body actually communicate with each other. In addition, schedule your life so that you can get seven to eight hours of good quality sleep, and you will be shocked at how this simple practice turbocharges your creativity and productivity. You’ll get more done in less time. Don’t believe me? Give it a try for a week and get back to me.

4. Meditate: This is another amazing brain hack. It’s easier now than ever. Things to help you meditate are all around you: There are apps and games and podcasts and videos on streaming sites galore. It’s everywhere. Meditating does feel weird at first. But if you just give it a chance, be patient with yourself, breathe, and listen, you will achieve a level of calculating calm and incisive mental control that will make you much more dangerously effective in all you do.

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5. Get an executive coach: It’s lonely at the top, and it’s a much better strategy to talk through the chaos in your mind with a safe, smart, discreet expert than it is to resort to throwing things. A good executive coach can help create some distance between your crazy and your business. The best coaches become an invaluable resource in helping you break through the next barrier to enhanced leadership abilities that generate real-life results.

Don’t go overboard. It’s not necessary to run to a Thai monastery for a month of silent meditation or do a 14-day juice cleanse. Stop falling asleep in meetings, crying under your desk, drinking too much, and yelling at your assistant. That approach will get you sued or inspire someone to write a damaging internet article about you. It’s possible to both recognize and avoid the curse of C-suite psychosis. You can do this. After all, if you don’t find balance, balance will find you.


Cheryl Contee is the Author of Mechanical Bull: How You Can Achieve Startup Success, CIO at The Impact Seat & Founder of DoBigThings.today

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