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Changing your leadership style during a midlife crisis will allow you to scale your involvement so that your management remains effective.
Approaching my 50s, I am pertinently aware of the immense emotional, physical, and practical challenges of midlife. These are even more intense for transformational leaders—who have to grapple with their own turbulent emotional and mental landscapes —and seemingly diminishing body strength—right at the time they have to show up as the most inspirational, committed, and influential versions of themselves for their reports, teams, investors, shareholders, and partners.
As leaders, we have to lead our projects and organizations through the encroaching storms of accelerated climate change (and pollution, global weirding, etc.), worsening inequality, relentlessly disruptive technologies, seismic generational changes, and interminable culture wars. Not to mention a pandemic, supply chain meltdowns, and much more. Our employees, reports, collaborators, suppliers, vendors are all looking to us to provide, protect, and lead lasting, necessary, and successful change (AKA transformation) to ensure our organization fits the future—and doesn't fail it.
Whilst we are helping others navigate the ruthless changes in the outside world, we also have to navigate through the rapid changes in our inner life: during our 40s and 50, we will go through the full realization that we are no longer the cool young kids on the block. Our kids, if we have them, will be embarrassed by us at some point. Our co-workers will think we are dinosaurs, no matter the trendy togs we might wear. We will realize, in one Zoom meeting or another, that we are no longer the smartest person in the room (if ever we were).
Reading glasses might be needed. Backaches, sore muscles, cognitive decline, joint pain may all begin to be far more apparent. We will probably struggle to stay fit and/or return to fitness if/when we lose it. We will start to lose friends—from conflict or death—and this will become more and more regular. Our own mortality and morbidity will loom up into our awareness. Divorce may unfold (or has already). Our parents and community elders may be increasingly demanding, emotionally and practically. They may be sick, need to be moved into a care home, struggling with disease, or dying.
As a direct corollary of all these demands, the time available for our own interests and wellbeing will become ever-smaller—assuming we are not shirking our duties as leaders/parents/partners that is.
Above all, in midlife we have to come fully to terms with what we have not yet achieved; and what we are unlikely ever to achieve.
This can be existentially agonizing for us all. The sheer volume and intensity of disappointment (that we have not got to where we wanted), disillusion (life, other people/the world wasn't as good as we thought it would be), pessimism (things won't now change much for us anymore), and despair (the world is truly *%£$ed) can be utterly crushing.
Cue the seemingly inevitable midlife crisis.
It appears that we all have to come to terms with these realities. Nobody I have ever met has sailed through midlife without a "crisis".
Virtually everyone I have worked with—leadership development, coaching, collaborators—has spoken of these harsh and intense challenges. Judging by the leaders I support, midlife crises rarely come in the cliched Lamborghini / Toy Boy / extramarital affair versions.
Instead, there are myriad and quotidian variations of Midlife Crisis—intense experiences of doubt and struggle about life's purpose, value, and meaning—that are far more likely to happen. For example:
Grinding low-grade dissatisfaction—even with seeming outward success
Becoming disgruntled and disagreeable—and finding lots of people irritating
Ruminating about the things you could have done/should have done
Regrets about lost opportunities or near-misses in earlier career moments
Cruising Facebook or LinkedIn to see how college friends or old colleagues have fared in the rat race
Lusting after sexier job titles
Checking the ages of famous and successful people—and not being pleased they are younger
Creativity-crushing cynicism or innovation-crushing know-it-all-ness
Needing to be the smartest in the room
Demanding that juniors/consultants/vendors show deference
Seeking out hip clothes and the latest bars
Wanting to be invited to drinks by employees
Wanting to be found attractive by employees and/or babysitters
Addiction to high-adrenaline or endorphin activities
Avoiding community duties and familial commitments (with golf, DJing etc.)
Climate change despair or denial
Being needlessly provocative and/or politically-polarizing
Being endlessly flirtatious
Relentless overworking—always *too busy* to be responsive
Constantly feeling distracted at work
Share-price and/or cryptocurrency obsessions
Late-night poker/porn/true crime habits
Thinking "If only I was at Google / Tesla / X I would be seen for my genius"
Thinking "If only I was CEO / CFO / SVP Strategy I would be happy"
Cue the new mountain bike, the renewed interest in collecting rare vinyl, the increasing size of that evening glass of wine, the perusing of mid-century design classics on the web... oh yes, I've been there too.
You are not alone.
Economic studies show that middle-age is the period where unhappiness peaks, before rising again in our 50s and beyond. This is the Happiness U-Curve, made popular by the economist David Blanchflower. "If all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times."
The trough of our wellbeing—life's darkest nadir— is around age 47. Blanchflower just published a paper that shows that, in Europe, the nadir was around 40 in the 1970s and is rising to over 50 today. Going from age 20 to age 45 equals a loss of happiness equivalent to one-third of being made redundant.
Encumbered by dependents younger than us, and often those older than us too, life can feel like a grim endurance test to make ends meet... and not have a heart attack or panic attack in the process. It can feel like every ounce of our energy, itself likely starting to fade, goes out towards others... and precious little of it is reserved for our own needs.
This is when the Ferrari/Tesla seems like a great idea. Or the 2nd/3rd house. Or the golf trips. Or just some kind of intense experience—anger, adrenaline, a negroni—to blot out the pain.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
A "crisis" means a turning point in the original Greek. One of the key transformational insights we teach is that every crisis can be metabolized into growth at our "leadership edge". If we can pause, take stock, and use our meta-cognition to explore the deeper meaning of the crisis, we will always discover a leadership upgrade.
If we see the Midlife Crisis as an invitation into what we call a "leadership upgrade"—as transformational leaders of our own lives and careers—our 40s and 50s can be the exhilarating start point of the 2nd Half of Life.
Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. Jonathan Rauch
Equipped with our hard-earned insights, we can focus on deepening our embodied wisdom—not just our cognitive smarts—so we can show up with the creativity, gravitas, empathy, self-mastery, compassion, and care needed to lead and land transformation in our organizations. Then we can play our full part as transformational leaders: confidently and consciously leading our people, organization, and systems towards a thriving future in our era of disruption, complexity, uncertainty, turbulence, and collapse.
What Is Transformational Leadership?
This won't happen by accident. We have to do the "inner work". But if we turn inward to focus on our own self-development and transformation, we can metabolize the feelings of disappointment, pessimism, and despair into commitment, care, and hope. We can transform the inevitable midlife crisis into a gateway into the most purposefully and relationally creative period of our lives.
The kids will still need a lot of attention. Our co-workers will still demand our energies. Our organizations will still need a lot of energy to survive and thrive in the rapidly-changing world.
But on the inside, we will have transformed. This then will change how we experience all the challenges of midlife and turn this period into the most fecund and generative period of our lives to date. Research bears this out. Studies have many peak creatively in their 50s. Other researchers say that "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.... [which is] often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community.”
It's not easy to transform Midlife Crisis into Midlife Breakthrough. But it is 100% possible. I stake my reputation on that. We can be ahead of the curve of leadership wisdom and access the levels of stability and agility typical of older people in our 40s. We can then sensemake and decision-make decisions wisely as leaders; stay open to possibility and innovation in moments of huge complexity and uncertainty; and thus lead significant and lasting change that adapts our teams, projects, and enterprises to the rapid environmental pressures all around.
This has to be the path of the Transformational Leader. We have to get ourselves right before we can lead our people and organization to survive, and thrive in, the very different future that is rushing towards us all. This is a profoundly intense and immense—but developmentally natural and necessary—transition into what my business partner Alison and I call our "Wisdom Years". I don't think we can be truly transformational leaders without developing and embodying such wisdom.
I lead an open online program on how to accelerate and exhilrate this journey. It's called The Essentials of Transformational Leadership. Do join me!
Cambridge-educated thought leader and keynote speaker, Nick develops highly-original ideas and powerful tools to ensure people across the planet can transform themselves, their enterprises, and their systems to thrive in a disrupted, digital, and stressed world. His advanced methodology, The Switch On Way, provides a rigorous brain-based pathway for unlocking the power of transformation. It includes a transformational leadership curriculum, disruptive innovation and systemic change methodology and 90+ proprietary tools and practices for transforming people and their problems. It covers: Purposeful, Conscious, Systemic, Creative, Inspirational & Collaborative Leadership (incl. storytelling & agility). Through his transformational leadership programs and leadership futurism, Nick has advised organisations like Novartis, Nike, No.10 Downing Street, Kelloggs, Genentech, Intel, lendlease, HSBC and Unilever, helping them engage with the "triple threat" of global risks, 4th Industrial Revolution tech (AI, Blockchain, IoT) and seismic cultural changes. At the pinnacle of leadership thinking he has spoken at LEGO, SAP, Google, The Economist Innovation Summit; taught at LBS, Yale, UCLA, Oxford, SciencesPo, UCL; and written for the FT and RSA. He co-wrote an academic paper on innovation which is in top 1% of citations. Through his personal transformation books, TV shows (BBC, MTV), workshops, and products he has inspired over 3 million people worldwide to evolve their consciousness and transform life, love and parenting. A pioneering wisdom philosopher, he has spoken at Aspen Ideas Fest, TOA, Science Foo, Science of Consciousness, BBC World Service, CBS, The Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and many more. Nick has a Triple 1st in Medicine & Philosophy from Cambridge University, has been a purposeful entrepreneur from age 24, and is the author: “The Book of Breakthrough”, the international bestseller "Switch On", and "Spiritual Atheist" (2018).
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