I had breakfast with a friend the other day, who also runs a fairly large company in South Africa. It’s my impression that there’s a conversation that happens behind the scenes in the world of leadership. A conversation that you’re often only exposed to when you get into a key leadership position. I know they exist because every now and then you read someone’s story who eludes to the secret conversations that go on.

I do understand why such conversations are held in secret, between people who share the responsibility and pressure that come with leadership. And it was my privilege on this occasion to be allowed behind the scenes for a short moment.

I asked my friend about leadership and loneliness. Well that’s how I started, but I was after the feelings that go with having to make tough decisions as a leader? Decisions that leaders make mostly mean conflict. Someone is going to disagree, and therefore conflict ensues. I wanted to know if he’d gotten used to the gut-churning that goes along with those types of decisions?

He thought for a short time and then told me that it never went away. He always had the gut-churning around the decisions he was required to make. He then said he’d like to add another layer to his answer, and that was that if you’re a good CEO, the only decisions you should make are the one’s nobody else can. He said all decisions should be made by those you’ve placed in areas of responsibility around you. And when people finally come to you, it’s because nobody can solve them, and therefore there probably isn’t an answer.

He said a good question to ask an incoming leader was whether they could sleep while dealing with a tough decision? Because if you can’t then you run the risk of damaging yourself through lack of sleep, anxiety, and even an addiction to sleeping pills.

We often bemoan the salaries that CEO’s and leaders of various organizations take home each year. What we often fail to recognise is the pressure they’re under. Not just work load, but decision load. Because if they’re good at what they do, there are no easy decisions. The issues they’re grappling with have no easy answer. No formula that can be applied. They live with you for days and weeks. During the day, and night. They’re the kind of stuff that makes or breaks a leader.

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