It starts with a tap on the back; that basic acknowledgement of a job well done.

From there, it escalates. At an office meeting, the boss uses you as an example of how to get the job done right. A stranger at an industry conferences recognises your name, having heard of your achievements. The rival organisation offers you an incredible job offer.

This is it. This is everything you wanted, the culmination of all your sacrifice, courage, and hard work.

But as you sit alone at your desk at 3am, you realise something doesn’t feel right. The last six hours are a blur of e-mails, phone calls, and spreadsheets. The half-eaten sushi roll sitting after on your desk from dinner is starting to smell. You can’t remember the last time you were home at a reasonable time, or slept longer than a few hours before returning to the office.

This is it.

The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall

Most of us have suffered through times like these. According to the American Institute of Stress, 40% of people in the workforce consider their job stressful, with 26% feeling “often or very often burned out”.

For leaders and other star performers, those figures skyrocket. The Wall Street Journal, citing a report by the Harvard Medical School, revealed that 96% of leaders experience burnout. One-third of these classify it as extreme.

While the crisis has been acknowledged as the greatest challenge to the modern workforce, the ‘churn and burn’ culture is still in full force, especially in those who find themselves on the rise to prominence within their company.

This is primarily the result of two psychological mechanisms: idealisation, and identification. As a talented individual starts garnering recognition, others begin to idealise them. It’s an act of self-defence, one designed to ensure they remain relevant as new dynamics come into play within the company.

The talent comes to carry the burden of this idealisation. As others identify them as a rainmaker, they are forced to accept this title, and work hard to live up to expectations. Now, if the company suffers a failure, it will fall on them.

Expectation subverts opportunity, mutating it into obligation. The talent begins to discard the idiosyncrasies and mindset that made them a drawcard in the first place, replacing them with the values and expectations of the company.

Eventually, the perfect future leader becomes the perfect follower, a gear cranking along hard and fast until it finally cracks.

Beware the Signs, and Overcome

Are you a rising star? If so, ask yourself three questions:

Are you using your talent, or proving it?

As your potential is recognised, you may find yourself thrust into a challenging new situation.

Initially pleased to be picked, as time goes by you may find that congratulations don’t come as readily as they once did, and wonder whether you’re not doing as good a job as you think you are. Feeling the pressure, you’ll push and push until you’re overworked and overwrought.

In truth, your boss likely recognises your competence, and is therefore happy to let you proceed as you wish.

Don’t get caught up on proving yourself. That’s how the talented lose their edge.

Own your talent. Find the balance between what your organisation needs and what innovations you can offer. This ability demonstrates your skill as a great leader.

Do you value image over authenticity?

The desire to demonstrate adherence to corporate culture comes at the detriment of what makes you valuable.

Don’t let expectation define who you are and what you do. If a company will not embrace your potential, find somewhere that will. Channel this experience, and use it to define your purpose.

Are you doing meaningful work?

As stars begin to burn out, they lose a sense of presence. Instead, they fixate on what they have lost in the process, and how they will find it again.

This longing to escape is difficult to overcome, and is of no benefit to anyone.

The solution is to be present in your work. Find meaning within it, and treat it as experience. To do so requires courage, and courage lies at the core of leadership.

It’s time to break the talent curse. Organisations must allow for the talented to develop, while ensuring they are supported. The talented themselves must learn to keep newfound challenges and opportunities in perspective, and avoid burnout. If not, the battle for talent will come to a bloody end.

Resources:

Harvard Business Review (2017). “The Talent Curse.” https://hbr.org/2017/05/the-talent-curse

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